Maker's Mark Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr., will be sharing his thoughts on the miracle of the bourbon industry and a bit of advice for business professionals Tuesday afternoon during the South Central Kentucky Business Expo at Cave City Convention Center.
Samuels' foray into the world of business and his family's immense success with bourbon came about by accident. Samuels had earned a degree in aerospace engineering in the 1960s, but got fired from his job in Sacramento, Calif., for incompetence.
“I got this brilliant idea I could come home and help Dad with his little hobby-that's what it was at the time,” Samuels said. “When I got there, I knew nothing.”
Samuels' father had started Maker's Mark in 1954, but made it clear to his family that it was simply a retirement hobby, not a full-fledged business plan. When Samuels started working at the company, 90 percent of Maker's Mark bourbon was sold within Kentucky, and another 5 percent to surrounding states. As time went on, Samuels said, he got “restless” and his father got “tolerant,” and they began expanding the business.
“Now we've got a retirement hobby worth more than a billion dollars,” Samuels said.
The tide turned for Maker's Mark when The Wall Street Journal published an article in 1980 about Maker's Mark and handcrafted bourbon.
“From that day, bourbon was top-shelf quality,” Samuels said.
Samuels is not the kind of business leader to look down upon his competition. The premium bourbon industry is a study in overcoming adversity, according to Samuels. Two decades ago, no one would have ever expected bourbon to be one of Kentucky's standout exports. Distilled spirits face a barrage of taxes, regulations and even limited sales avenues, unlike nonalcoholic beverages, wine and beer that can be sold in gas stations and grocery stories. In spite of the obstacles, bourbon is “the hottest distilled spirit in the world right now.”