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Margie Mattingly Samuels Makes Her Mark


Margaret Mattingly was born in 1916 in Bardstown, Kentucky.


Admittedly, that’s not the most tantalizing lead for a story but, please, stay with me.


Let’s take a quick, Reader’s Digest version, look at Margie’s, as she was called, life:


  • She was born into the family that co-founded the Mattingly & Moore Distillery in the 1800s. For you bourbon aficionados, the site of the distillery is now home to Barton’s 1792 distillery.

  • She graduated from the University of Louisville in 1933 with a degree in chemistry. Not to be outdone, she finished at the top of her class at a time when barely 10 percent of women even attended college. And, this was during the Great Depression beginning in 1929.

  • She met her husband, Bill Samuels Sr., at the university. They married in 1937 and moved into his old family home in Bardstown, next door to Colonel Jim and Mary Beam. You might have heard of the Colonel, he’s the fella behind Jim Beam bourbon.

  • Quick side note for you not into all things bourbon and wondering what all this Bardstown talk is; Bardstown is ground zero of bourbon-making history and considered the Bourbon Capital of the World.

  • Margie became a teacher after college, but her real claim to fame is that she was a marketing genius.

  • She and Bill founded a company that has become a name brand throughout the world today. Even if you don’t buy it, you’ve most likely heard of it. Much of the credit for making that a reality is attributed to Margie’s marketing creativity.

  • In 2014, she was the first woman connected with a distillery to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Don’t be thinking that’s a small thing. The Kentucky Hall of Fame is essentially the world’s hall of fame and Margie was the only inductee that year.


The company?



That’s the one with the distinctive square-shaped bourbon bottle, top dripping with red wax.


Margie and Bill’s Early Years


As the story goes, by the time the 1950s came around, Margie and Bill had been married for 15 years, give or take. Bill had left the Navy and was ready to slow down a bit, so he bought land and became a “gentleman farmer”.


Photo of three Maker's Mark bottles, cask strength on left, special Margie Samuels bottle in center, and cask strength Maker's Mark 46 on right.
Specially-made, distillery-exclusive, Maker's Mark bottle dedicated to founder Margie Samuels. **

That didn’t last too long. Bill became bored and Margie became tired of Bill being bored, and told him to find a job.


I left a little piece of the story out. Bill’s family had been in the bourbon business going all the way back to 1702 in Scotland. They emigrated to America, this was before our country became the United States, and eventually settled in Kentucky, still making bourbon.


Another sidenote: The family was contracted by none other than General George Washington to make whiskey for the army during the Revolutionary War.


Bill inherited a minority share of, what was then, the TW Samuels Distillery, in 1936 and ran it until 1943, six years after he and Margie were married.


This was the World War II era. Bill sold the distillery and all of its trademarks and enlisted for the war as a Lieutenant in the Navy. Selling the distillery was, among other things, how he had enough money to be able to enter quasi-retirement as a gentleman farmer after he left the Navy.


You now understand why it was not out of character that, when Margie told Bill to find a job, he turned to distilling bourbon. It had been his family business for six generations.


Making Bourbon Out of Bread


Bill didn’t particularly care for the bourbon his family had been making all those years. It was a throwback to an era gone by, when whiskey was strong and harsh. Imagine the rotgut cowboys shot back in saloons with swinging doors.


Photo of wooden vat at distillery filled with fomenting bourbon.
The yeast starter used in making Maker's Mark has been continually handed down and used since the beginning. **

By the 1950s, smoother-tasting whiskey, meant to be sipped and enjoyed, had entered the market and taken over in popularity.


Bill still had his old family recipe but committed to creating his own. So much so, he took a match and set the only copy aflame, nearly burning the house down as well when the curtains caught on fire too.


I’m guessing Margie was none too happy about that.


To create the new recipe, Margie began baking. That’s right, baking. Bread to be exact. Seven different loaves of bread, each with a differing mixture of grains.


You might call it the bourbon version of the loaves and fishes.


After that seventh loaf, they had their new recipe: 70 percent corn, 16 percent soft red winter wheat and 14 percent malted barley. Unlike many bourbons, the recipe contains no rye and using soft red winter wheat was a distinct choice, different from most distilleries.


Margie Creates an Identity


This is the part of the story where Margie’s marketing genius enters the room.


Photo of two large, shiny, cylindrical copper stills, sitting side by side.
Maker's Mark uses a double-distillation process, in these copper stills, that it believes removes impurities for a better sipping whiskey. **

As Bill went about the tasks of building a distillery and producing bourbon, Margie focused on what this new bourbon would be called and what it would look like on the store shelf.


She had long collected fine English pewter. The kinds of metal cups, mugs, platters and plates you’d associate with our colonial ancestors.


On the backs of each of these handmade pieces is a distinguishing mark indicating who created them, the maker’s mark.


Yes, that’s where the Maker’s Mark name originated.


In addition, looking at the Maker’s Mark label, you’ll see a small symbol with a star, the letter “S” and Roman numerals, “IV” with a circle around them.


This was another of Margie’s creations, wishing to have something on the bottle reminding people of who was creating the bourbon.


The “S” is for the family name, Samuels. The “IV” is for Bill being the fourth generation of the family to make bourbon. It was only later they realized he was the sixth generation. By then they decided not to change things on the bottle.


The star symbolizes Star Hill Farms, where the distillery is still located today.


All together, that small mark is similar to the maker’s mark you might find on the back of English pewter.

Here’s a little secret. If you noticed the circle is broken in places, good for you. There’s a reason for that.


Margie did it to represent dark times in American distilling when the sale of alcohol was illegal, the Civil War, World War I and Prohibition.


We’re not done! The font used on the label, something looking like it came off an old printer during Colonial times, was all Margie.


Margie was creative, to say the least, and also a calligrapher. She personally created and drew the words on that label. An entirely new font was born from her art.


Let’s Take a Dip


So how about the bottle itself? And that red wax dipping thing?


Those are Margie too.


Stainless steel assembly line stacked with red wax dipped Maker's Mark bottles.
Where the magic happens. Maker's Mark's wax dipping assembly line. **

In addition to pewter, she also collected cognac bottles. Google “cognac bottles” and you’ll find a lot of images of generally shorter bottles, with long necks and large bodies.


Using those bottles as inspiration, Margie literally crafted a bottle from paper mache. The exact bottle we still see used by the company today.


She then turned her fryer into a lab experiment, dipping bottles into wax, determining the best method for adding the signature red wax. Again, the inspiration for the wax coming from those cognac bottles, also dipped in wax.


Bill was reportedly ok with the shape of the bottle but wasn’t too excited about the whole dipping it in wax idea, telling Margie it would take way too much time on the assembly line.


At this point Margie pulled rank, reminding Bill she graduated at the top of their class at Louisville, and he was considerably further down the list.


Their son, Bill Jr., tells this story so I gotta believe it’s true.


Rows of bourbon barrels with images of limestone rock visible through windows in back.
Maker's Mark built a cave into the limestone at the back of the property. Barrels of Maker's Mark 46 are stored there for aging. **

The first bottle of Maker’s Mark, bottled and hand dipped, left the distillery on May 8, 1958.


Let's face it, Bill was pretty happy he last this one. It can be argued, quite successfully, the wax dipped bottle is what gets people's attention and is responsible for a lot of the sales to first-time Maker's Mark buyers.


P.S. Margie is also responsible for the little tab you pull to cut through the wax and open the bottle.


Margie didn’t win every debate with Bill however.


In addition to the wax dipping, she also wanted every label to be hand ripped, stressing even more how every bottle was a special product. Bill was even more concerned with the time it would take to do this one than he was with the wax dipping.


I guess Margie didn’t really lose this debate either. A compromise was struck and, instead of hand torn, every Maker’s Mark label appears with a rippled edge, cut by a machine.


Margie’s Legacy


Even though Margie died in 1985, her legacy continues.


She and Bill were supporters of many charitable organizations throughout the years.


Photo of brick walkway, beautiful green grass and trees, and grey buildings with red shutters.
Maker's Mark is easily one of the most beautiful distilleries anywhere. **

When you visit the Maker’s Mark distillery, you might find a special Founder’s Edition bottle dedicated to Margie and only available at the store.


These are limited editions. Mine, pictured at the top of this post, is bottle #2,831. Proceeds from the sale went to charities and college scholarships supporting female leadership and empowerment.


Even if this isn’t available, nearly every year the distillery continues to make a concerted effort to honor Margie through similar activities.


It is celebrating Women’s History Month this year by giving away personalized, specially-designed, labels to anyone who requests them. In connection with that, the distillery is donating to Vital Voices, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering the voices of women leaders.


But, hurry, it’s a limited edition and time is running out.


The Distillery Today


A quick note. Margie was also the first one to invite visitors to tour a bourbon distillery, something nearly all major distilleries do today.


Photo of man dipping Maker's Mark bottle into red wax.
No way I was going to pass up the chance to dip wax on a couple of bottles of my own. **

I personally recommend people put Maker’s Mark on their Kentucky Bourbon Trail itinerary. The grounds are absolutely beautiful, the history is tremendous and the tour guides do a great job. It's even been designated a National Historic Landmark.


You can even dip your own bottle of Maker's Mark!


Full disclosure, lest you think I’m Maker’s Mark’s number one fan, it’s not my favorite whiskey.


Not taking anything away from it, but I grew up with Wild Turkey and will always be faithful to it and it’s related Russell’s Reserve. I’m also kind of partial to Elijah Craig and Knob Creek.


Having said that, as we close out Women’s History Month, I think it’s time to raise a glass of Maker’s Mark to Margie.


Salute!


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**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.


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