45 tries later ...
How the holidays' hot drink gift almost never happened: Bourbon king lessons
It hit Texas first back in July, but Maker's 46 is again on our tongues in conversation and at home as we gear up to select Christmas gifts. With the first batch already out of the distillery and selling out of liquor stores like hot cakes, it's becoming an ever-more in-demand gift for the bourbon lover.
Although it begins with original Maker's Mark bourbon, 46 isn't simply aged longer — as with some of Maker's occasional limited runs — it's an entirely new taste.
We sat down with Maker's Mark CEO Bill Samuels for a swig and a long lunch at Mockingbird Bistro, where aside from the bourbon we touched on lateral thinking, serendipity and the power of curiosity.
Samuels, a Kentucky good old boy with a keen sense of humor, was trained as a physicist, and went on to become one of the world's earlier rocket scientists. (He was a pallbearer in T. Keith Glennan's funeral, and studied under Dr. Edward Teller at the University of California, Berkeley).
He was lured back into the family business after a stint in law school by Hap Motlow, a close friend of Samuels' father and chairman of the Jack Daniels distillery near Vanderbilt University Law School in Tennessee.
He returned to Kentucky after law school to work for his father — temporarily, of course. "I went to work for one year," Samuels says. "That was 43 and a half years ago."
Samuels chalks his divergent career changes up to his dyslexia and his embracing of lateral thinking to cope with it.
"You can't store anything," Samuels says of his careers in engineering and law. "You have to go where no one else is, jump around. It's nimble thinking."
He now jokes about the fact that the only business classes he's ever been in are ones he's taught.
Knowing that Samuels named his 36-year-old son, Rob, Chief Operating Officer of the family business only a few days before we spoke casts his years-long Maker's 46 project in a different light, perhaps as a sort of swan song as he releases the reins of the company to the next generation. Samuels was 35 years old himself when he took over as president of the brand his father founded.
Some might wonder why a brand defined by its consistency would choose to launch a new product in the midst of uncertain economic times. Samuels dismisses the timing, saying "it's not a commercial-driven thing; it's a curiosity-driven thing."
"It's about advancing the art of bourbon," Samuels continues. "We spent two and a half years screwing around. We didn't get far, but we knew exactly what we wanted to do — it's a step change."
It wasn't until Samuels and Maker's Mark master brewer Kevin Smith brought in Brad Boswell, longtime barrel-maker for the brand (his grandfather also worked with the Samuels family), that it finally came together — and quickly.
Boswell initially told Samuels and Smith that their goal was impossible.
"It's not possible? Good, we'll be first," an unfazed Samuels said. He knew it would take a challenge to get Boswell involved.
It took 123 failed experiments and a directive from Boswell to attend schooling from a chemistry PhD before the boys struck in the winning profile. (Samuel says that Boswell, who has a PhD in biology, told them they simply didn't know enough to engage him in an intelligent conversation.) Aging bourbon is a tricky thing; if it stays too long in the barrel, it begins penetrating the wood and digging out a bitter, acidic taste.
46 is made with finished Maker's Mark infused naturally with flavors from planks of French Oak. "It has to be natural, or it's not bourbon," Samuels says. So don't get "infused" confused: There are no external flavors injected here, only those from grain and wood.
It's from the French Oak that 46 gained it's cinnamon hints, something Samuels says was a pleasant surprise to them, too.
Makers barrels have always been, and still are, made of American Oak, but the staves inserted in 46 are French because it chars less easily and can be successfully seared to lock in flavor. The staves are added to the original barrel once the bourbon is complete to infuse it with extra flavor as it continues to age for another 10 weeks or so.
It's named in honor of Boswell. He'd created 45 time/temperature profiles before striking on the on the one that created the winning recipe — number 46.
Samuels says the company he hired to design the packaging — the original bottle having been designed by his mother — got it right on the first try save one thing. We came close to giving "Brad's Delight" for Christmas.
Watch Bill Samuels and master distiller Kevin Smith (not that Kevin Smith) talk about 46 below: