Inside Look: Maker’s Mark Distillery

In the March/April 2019 Travel Issue, Kathleen Purvis explores how distilleries are transforming into tourist destinations, including the tale of Marjorie Samuels, wife of Maker’s Mark founder William Samuels Sr., who invented the brand name Maker’s, the signature red-wax seal for the bottles and the label design. Margie is considered the first person to reimagine the distillery as more than a place that makes whiskey. She envisioned a destination that locals would want to visit—”a picturesque village right down to the gray-and-red color scheme and bottle-shaped cutouts in the shutters,” Purvis writes.

She was on to something. Since the Samuels family bought the plot and renamed it Star Hill Farm in 1953, the manicured grounds and color-coordinated buildings have drawn visitors from all over the world. Today, the facility, which is almost equidistant from both Louisville and Lexington, welcomes 165,000 visitors a year, 90 percent of whom travel from beyond Kentucky to witness the magic that goes into making each wax-tipped bottle. Each of the four tour options (ranging from 1-2½ hours) starts in the visitor center, an old farmhouse that once served as the lodging of the original property owners, and continues through the village-like property, peppered with 10 additional Victorian-style buildings that were all built in the 1800s.

Rob Samuels, grandson of Margie and chief distillery officer, says the look and feel of the distillery is meant to evoke a sense of family. “We’ve worked hard to preserve the distillery layout and keep as many special touches as my grandmother first designed in the 1950s,” Samuels says. “She designed the distillery like someone would design their home, and took every detailed aspect into consideration during the development process.”

Most details, like the layout of the property (inspired by Victorian villages Margie visited in Virginia) and the black buildings with red shutters, have been preserved the way Margie always intended. “My grandmother made sure that for every dollar spent on bourbon, another dollar went toward the distillery, and for all of her contributions she would become the first female directly connected to a distillery inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame,” Samuels adds.

A few elements have been added to the experience since Margie’s days, like the “Spirit of the Maker” hand-blown glass ceiling created by artist Dale Chihuly. “The artwork is comprised of over 1,000 unique, multicolored glass pieces that hang overhead as guests exit our tasting room. Chihuly was inspired by the red wax on our Maker’s Mark bottles and by our water source, and so as guests walk through a dark barrel room with aging bourbon on both sides, rich shades of red, blue and caramel (for our bourbon), are represented beautifully above,” Samuels says of the centerpiece. Other artwork also adds flair to the grounds; stained glass windows by Peter Eichhorn overlook the fermentation tanks, and one of painter Michael Flohr’s works hangs in the visitor center after a showcase of his work took place on campus in 2018.

The Samuels family added a restaurant and bar called Star Hill Provisions in 2017, and a year prior they excavated one of the site’s limestone hills to create a cave-like limestone aging cellar specifically intended for housing and maturing the Maker’s 46 and Maker’s Mark Private Select bourbons. Thanks to the preservation of history while adding modern improvements, the distillery received National Historic Landmark status in 1980. “We are honored that Maker’s Mark was named a National Historic Landmark,” he adds. “All of the people who work at the distillery take tremendous pride in their work and we hope that passion transfers to anyone visiting us in Loretto, Kentucky.”


Did you enjoy this article? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for a print or digital subscription to Imbibe Magazine. Click here for special savings!