Chicken & Whiskey: Two Kentucky Dynasties Intersect
By Michael Lindenberger
Few private places in Kentucky are draped with such fascinating family history as the modestly furnished boardroom at Maker’s Mark Distillery.
Wedding pictures featuring the James brothers – cousins to the Samuels family – hang near family correspondence to and from Abraham Lincoln. There’s the pistol Frank James used in carrying out his part in the slaughter of civilians in Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas in 1863. There’s the family portrait with Bill Samuels Jr., in blazer and short pants. And hanging in one corner is a gallery of framed portraits of the first names in American whiskey, from Col. Jim Beam to Booker Noe to Pappy Van Winkle to Hap Motlow, great-nephew to Jack Daniels himself.
Those were the men to whom T. William Samuels had turned to for advice in 1953 when he bought the old frontier-era Burks’ Distillery on Hardin Creek in Marion County. In buying the aging property, he was rekindling his family’s whiskey heritage, a line that stretched to the Revolutionary War, even as he was abandoning the family brand, T.W. Samuels. He didn’t like the way it – or other bourbons – tasted. Who had decreed, he wondered, that bourbon must be “an acquired taste?” Those men in the photographs and his chemist-wife Marge helped the elder Samuels create what he always wanted: A whiskey that even people who didn’t like whiskey could like on first sip.
But there’s another portrait hanging there, too, and the white-haired and white-suited man in the picture had very little to do with the winter-wheat whiskey mash that would become Maker’s Mark.
Two Kentucky Dynasties Intersect
Harland Sanders was a family friend, and when the Samuels family followed Bear Bryant’s football teams to Knoxville, they’d stop in Corbin to stay at Sanders’ motor court, where he was already locally famous for his 11 herbs and spices.
In the fall of 1955, a year after the first barrels of whiskey were set down to age at the Samuels’ distillery, Sanders sold the motor court for about what he owed on it. He began taking his recipe – and his pressure cookers – from town to town. Two years before, he had sold his first franchise rights to a restaurant in Salt Lake City.
But it wasn’t until the spring of 1956 that Sanders’ story came into direct contact with the younger Samuels’ story.
It was June 1, and the Samuels were repaying his hospitality. It was a Friday and Bill Jr. had turned 16 that day. When he stepped into his house at about noon, he was carrying a freshly issued driver’s license.
“I drove home, boy was I excited. And he was there,” Samuels recalled recently as he stood in the history-draped boardroom.
Neither Sanders, nor the Samuel family’s new whiskey, were household names yet. In fact, prospects for either were pretty shaky. Maker’s was made in tiny quantities then, and not much known outside the country.
Sanders was financing his business on the $105 monthly Social Security checks he received.
That would change, of course – more quickly for the chicken empire than the bourbon makers. Eight years after that lunch at the Samuels’, he’d sell the company to John Y. Brown Jr. and a partner for $2 million. By 1968, the Rotary Club’s international magazine would be calling Sanders America’s “fried chicken king.”
The elder Samuels would sell, too. In 1981, he sold the distillery to Hiram Walker and Sons, makers of Canadian Club. The distillery, though growing in prestige by the 1980s, simply didn’t yet produce the cash that it would have taken for the company to remain in family hands once his parents passed and estate taxes came due, Bill Jr. would tell me.
For his part, Sanders became a kind of ambassador for Kentucky and for his fried chicken, a role he played long after he sold the company. Years later, when the Samuels sold out, Bill Jr. stayed in charge in Loretto, answering to a series of corporate owners.
By the time he stepped down in early 2011 to make room for his son Rob Samuels, the whiskey had survived long enough to see premium and super-premium brands fuel a worldwide boom in bourbon. Much of that success can be traced to the marketing genius Samuels applied to the whiskey his dad, with all that help from his friends, created back in 1953.
Now that’s he’s more or less retired, Samuels says he finally has time to be a better grandfather than his laser focus on business ever allowed him to be a father. Even so, he still makes the drive from his River Road home to the family distillery a few times a week. And given the worldwide bourbon boom, his schedule is busier as chairman emeritus than anyone ever thought it would be.
That’s clear on the morning in April when he picked me up at my dad’s place in Louisville just after dawn, en route to a day at the distillery. The night before, he had been out late for a tasting at Maker’s Mark Lounge in Louisville, one of three nationwide that are licensed to carry the brand’s name. By the time he dropped me off that evening, he was nearly running late for another bourbon society tasting in Anchorage.
In between, we were standing in front of the portraits in the boardroom talking about why Sanders was hanging on the wall there with America’s true whiskey gentry.
“Well, I was his first employee,” Samuels said. “Sort of. He didn’t have the white suit then. He had retired in the fall of 1955. He was driving Claudia crazy just like dad was driving mom crazy. He had figured out how to make chicken in the pressure cooker, but it was just a local thing. So he decided to make it bigger.”
Samuels was in jeans, coffee in his hand. He’d soon walk across the grounds, gentle rain following between lovingly maintained historic buildings, to greet a tour group making one of the original stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. He does this most Thursdays, and by the time he’d finish he’d be mobbed by requests him for autographs and to pose for photos.
Watching him work the crowd, one might never guess he was trained in rocket science at graduate school at Berkeley, or that he was all set to be a patent and trademark lawyer after graduating from Vanderbilt law school. Nor that he struggled all his childhood in Bardstown schools, convinced he was slow when he was really just dyslexic – and simply learned differently than his classmates. It’s easy to miss all those things because more than anything, what Bill Samuels Jr. does well is tell stories. He’s been telling the story of Maker’s Mark and his family’s commitment to bourbon for half a century.
And that’s what he was doing that morning with me, standing in the boardroom looking for the connection between Col. Sanders and the Samuels family.
“He was going to take the pressure cookers out and sell the process,” Samuels said. “It was a nickel a chicken, a handshake, and he would go to existing restaurants, one in every small town.
“He stayed with friends and he was a friend of dad’s. We would stay at his place in Corbin when we went to Tennessee football games. So he was going to spend the night at the house and (when the newly licensed Samuels walked in) he said, “You doing anything? I said no. He said, ‘Well why don’t you drive me?’
“And we spent the summer – I probably drove him four or five times that summer when he made the rounds in our part of the state. So I’d drive him out. He had a pick-up truck then with the pressure cookers on the back.
“I would drive him and he would do his business. Of course no cell phones, nothing then. Everything was on paper. But that was his office, the front seat of the inside of the truck.”
There are plenty of similarities to taking good fried chicken nationwide and making good bourbon. Both require recipes and both demand consistency.
The Colonel had a way of seeing to the consistency that stuck with his young driver.
“There were two of him,” Samuels said. “The first side, he was the greatest salesman who ever lived. And I mean by that salesman with a purpose. Because it was goal-oriented sales.”
But not everyone who signed up to sell the Colonel’s chicken prepared it the way he told them to. And then they saw another side of the white-suited icon.
“The other side of him was when they start screwing around with what he told them to do. And they weren’t doing it right,” Samuels said. “We didn’t see that until the second or third time and we didn’t see it much. But when we did, he went berserk.
“Matter of fact, I fussed at him. Can you imagine? A 16-year-old fussing at the guy who within five years was going to be the most famous living person in the world? I told him I felt that was a little over the top – he really got outrageous. He said, ‘No it wasn’t, either.’ “I said how come? He said, ‘Well we won’t have to tell them again.’
“And word got – this was before Facebook – word got out: Don’t f#ck with the Colonel’s process. Make sure you are doing everything exactly like he told you to do.”
That was the lesson that stuck for the franchisees – and for the young Samuels. Years later, when new owners bought the family distillery, Samuels didn’t demand a contract. He told them he’d stay on if they gave him the key to the warehouses. All he wanted, he said, was to be the final word on when a barrel of the family whiskey was ready to be sold. It was the only admonition his father ever gave him when handed over the reins: Don’t screw up the whiskey.
It’s the same message all those summer days spent in the front seat with Sanders taught him as well.
“He was a true maniac for doing it right,” he said. “And I always respected that. I’d say that was the main learning from him for me.”
About Story Magazine: Story is a cultural magazine directed at readers who are interested in Kentucky life that often falls outside the bounds of traditional media. Join us as we explore over the river and through the woods to find those under-the-radar stories that deserve their moment in the sun.