Rob Samuels Talks Maker’s Mark, Drinking in the Fall, and the Rolling Stones

Rob Samuels sitting at the bar at Sable.
Rob Samuels sitting at the bar at Sable. Photo: Nick Kindelsperger

Meet the new maker of your booze. Specifically, meet the new Chief Operating Officer of Maker’s Mark, Rob Samuels. He took over in April, but considering he’s the son of the former president and the grandson of Maker’s founder, he’s not exactly new to the company. Interestingly, he’s no stranger to Chicago, either, having attended the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business a few years ago. In town for some tastings, we sat down with Samuels to talk about how restaurants and bars were using Maker’s, and how the company’s new product, Maker’s Mark 46, was doing. Along the way, we learned about his favorite chef, how he gives his friends a hard time for ordering Diet Coke and bourbon, and where he likes to drink in Paris.

How did Maker’s Mark 46 start?
Our process was the opposite of how it usually goes. We’ve talked about what it would taste like, and whether it would be possible to create a new product that would be unique to us, but that would be a little bolder and more robust. Eventually we brought in Brad Boswell, who is a third generation barrel maker in Kentucky. He’s amazing. On his business card, it doesn’t say owner or CEO, it says wood chef.

How did he help?
We started experimenting with different wood finishing concepts. Most of them were disasters, some more so than others. The winning wood finishing concept was when we seared a French oak stave, and added it at the end of the aging period to a barrel of Maker’s Mark. So, it starts with the original bourbon, but adds a different profile.

How different is it from the original?
People think that it’s our better version of Maker’s Mark, but it’s not. It’s different and similar all at the same time. It might be for a different occasion.

What is that occasion?
It might be on a fall night with friends, a cigar, and a snifter. I mean, there are some consumers today that just want something a little more bold.

Are some restaurants latching on to the product?
I don’t spend as much time eating out in Chicago, but one of my favorite chefs in Kentucky is Jonathan Lundy in Lexington. He runs a local restaurant called Jonathan at Gratz Park, and he asked for one of the French staves. Some people cook salmon on cedar planks, but now he’s preparing his salmon on our 46 staves.

How are bartenders using 46?
It’s phenomenal in a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. What I’ve always suggested with folks, if you want to enjoy the essence of Maker’s Mark is to try it neat or over ice, or with a splash of water. But the uniqueness comes through even in a cocktail. I had a friend that would always order Maker’s with a splash of Diet Coke. He always assumed that I was offended, which I was. He finally asked me one night, ‘Is my bourbon and Coke better if I use Maker’s?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘Well, stop given me shit about it.’

Any bartenders in particular you’ve noticed using it?
One of my favorite cocktail experiences was at the Hemingway Bar in Paris at the Ritz Hotel. It was my first ever trip to Paris, and the one thing I wanted to do was visit Colin Field at the Hemingway Bar. He’s one of the world’s best bartenders. I decided to only have one cocktail, because I had to get up early the next day. Turns out the bar is tiny — three bar stools, two or three tiny tables. But Field is a craftsman, and everything is made by hand. You’d think that in his backbar he would have many, many different kinds of liquor in every category, but it was really limited. I mean, he only had one bourbon. I didn’t even know that, and it was Maker’s Mark. Of course, then I had several cocktails, all handmade and all super expensive. Like 45 euros a drink.

I had heard they were expensive.
Absolutely. He’s got all these shakers on his bar, and he tells these stories. It’s unbelievable. In fact, the night before I was in there, the Rolling Stones had played in Paris and stayed at the hotel, and came in to have a cocktail. Colin told me, ‘This is the shaker I made Mick Jaggers drink in.’ And as I was leaving, and remember I had several drinks, he came around the bar and gave me that cocktail shaker. That was cool.

Rob Samuels Talks Maker’s Mark, Drinking in the Fall, and the Rolling Stones