February 18, 2013
For much of its history, bourbon has suffered the negative reputation of being an excessively strong and harsh spirit, an unpalatable quality for drinkers desiring something they could sip and enjoy. Distilleries, as a result, would see sales plummet and would have no choice but to close. It was within this atmosphere of a decaying industry that Bill Samuels Sr. founded Maker’s Mark, a bourbon promising to deliver a softer taste that could be savored. Despite the potential of being a popular and marketable product, Maker’s Mark did not sell and failed to live up to Bill’s vision of success. Even the addition of a visitors’ center at the Kentucky distillery did little to improve the startup’s fortunes. For the company to become profitable, the Samuels family would have to reverse the public’s perception of bourbon being a “working toughman’s” spirit.
When Bill’s son, Bill Jr. took the reins as company CEO in 1975, the still-struggling distillery experienced a sudden stroke of luck. A visiting reporter from the Wall Street Journal became interested in the company’s story and product, subsequently writing a positive article on the bourbon, published on the front page of the newspaper's August 1, 1980 edition. The public’s reaction was monumental. Within a few days of the article, Maker’s Mark was inundated with letters and phone calls from individuals around the country, all wanting to purchase or find out more about the smooth bourbon spirit. Once sitting on barrels of unsold stock, the Samuels family now struggled to keep up with demand, with distributors and customers all wanting more than the small distillery could produce.
A year after the Wall Street Journal article appeared, Maker’s Mark was sold to the spirits company Hiram Walker, though the Samuels family would retain control over much of the production and promotion. In acknowledging the role public perception and recognition had played in creating this success, Bill Jr. continued the tradition of reaching out to consumers, travelling the country and connecting them with the brand on a personal level. As a result of one newspaper article, Maker’s Mark went from being a budding startup, barely able to meet the company payroll, to a best-selling brand that today creates more than $130 million in revenues.