We went down to the Edgewater Hotel to drink Maker's Mark with the son of the Kentuckian who invented the smooth and dark bourbon way back in 1958. That's all I wanted: to drink my favorite bourbon with this Bill Samuels Jr. And what does Dominic do? He tells this known Republican (and known fan of horse racing and college basketball) that I'm a Marxist, and that I have been in the habit of calling my brand of Marxism "Maker's Marxism": a political program seeking to end capitalist exploitation, strengthen social safety nets, liberate knowledge, and make higher learning accessible to all—and yet a program that's not unaware of the humanness of humans, of the fact that the pursuit of truth sometimes gets boring and tiresome, and of the fact that a few strong drinks can do a world of good.
I did not expect Samuels to grasp these and other subtleties of my program. And besides, I didn't want to talk politics. I just wanted to drink and hear yarns about the tradition of distilling this excellent stuff up in them there hills of Kentucky (Kentucky has hills, right?). I have always had a cosmopolitan weakness for pastorals. I had watched The Dukes of Hazzard as a boy and loved it—the corrupt cops, the car chases on dusty roads, the good old boys, the General Lee, and so on. I was happy to have these fantasies entertained as I sipped Maker's Mark.
But right off the bat, Dominic makes sure the jig is up: Samuels knows I'm a Marxist. This is a man who grew up in the 1950s! The height of the red scare. Those dark "duck and cover" days. For him, the fall of the Berlin Wall probably meant the death of all that red stuff and a real victory of liberty and freedom. And after all that—after the Sputnik, the Bay of Pigs, the Tet Offensive—here he was sitting next to a fucking commie!
But to my surprise, Samuels was not upset. He started talking about a billboard in honor of the 50th anniversary of Maker's Mark, and what the company put on that billboard to commemorate the golden anniversary: a picture of Groucho Marx, or his mustache or something, with a bottle of Maker's Mark. Apparently, Groucho Marx's estate was not happy about this billboard. Apparently, Samuels resolved the trifle by sending the estate bottles of bourbon. Apparently, Samuels thought I followed Groucho, not Karl—an odd but, for the sake of peace, fortunate mistake. I let the geezer believe that Groucho informed my politics and social theories, and the geezer let me enjoy the oodles and oodles of stories about how his ma and pa came up with Maker's Mark. Ma designed the bottle. Pa invented the taste because his pa made bad whiskey. Soon, Junior is going to retire and turn the family business over to his son. It's a regular Kentucky dynasty. Hee-haw! —CHARLES MUDEDE
Bill Samuels Jr. is a folksy man who tells folksy stories about his family's seven generations of bourbon makers, about the distillery located in its original barn, about his father's stash of Kentucky whiskey tucked away in ye old Samuels cellar, and about the bottle that hasn't ever changed. That was old lady Samuels's doing, the signature red wax—different on every bottle—dripping down the amber neck, with the company's seal in relief on the glass. She took the whiskey's name from her affinity for English pewter work of 18th-century England, when the soft metal was imprinted with the mark of the craftsman. (Not folksy enough for you? Samuels's bio adds, "As a child, he played Lincoln Logs with an aged Col. Jim Beam.")
If Samuels did know what Marxism was, or that I'm a pole-smoking 'mo, he surely would have shot us both. He held the executive luncheon for the 2008 annual National Rifle Association meeting in his home.
But for all Samuels's down-home storytelling, Maker's Mark is a massive company, branded with the mark of a multinational corporation. Its quaint barn has been decked out with additions to become a factory cranking out 600,000 cases a year. It's owned by the conglomerate Fortune Brands, which also owns Jim Beam, Canadian Club, and Courvoisier, and has plenty of holdings in golf equipment, hardware, and housewares. It used to be called American Tobacco Company. The spirits division of Fortune Brands has 3,452 employees, and the corporate division has 126; the company-wide total was 24,248 employees as of this time last year. It owns 20 spirits manufacturing plants and 22 spirits warehouses worldwide, and leases lots more warehouses and distribution centers. The company has a $10 billion annual market share, with $2.5 billion from its spirits business.
Samuels isn't quite a good ol' boy. He doesn't drink with us. He does tell us about drinking the old bottles, from back before his daddy pioneered a better bourbon in 1958. "From time to time, we tap into it," Samuels says. The results of those old bottles? He calls it "pedestrian," the sort of pejorative deployed by the least pedestrian of folks. He's a scientist and lawyer by trade. Which, come to think of it, means Samuels damn well knew I was a knob-polishing deviant and that Charles hates America. That Groucho stuff? A public relations distraction, as smooth as Maker's Mark. —DOMINIC HOLDEN