Article by Robbie Clark; Photography by Victor Sizemore
In many ways Rob Samuels’ grandmother, Margie Samuels, had as much to do with the recent Dale Chihuly art installation at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Ky., as the young Ambassador in Chief of the Bourbon brand. The 40-foot-long, 6-foot-wide sculptural composition, consisting of 1,300 multicolored, individual hand-blown glass pieces, created by one of America’s most preeminent artists, is in keeping with what she helped create with her husband, Bill Samuels Sr., 60 years ago.
When Bill Sr. inherited the T.W. Samuels Distillery, which his ancestors founded at Samuels Depot about 35 miles away in the 1840s, the facility was still a commercially viable operation. As a descendent of a family that had been in the whiskey business since the 1500s in Scotland (18th century in the U.S.), he was still interested in producing the spirit, just not the kind that blew your ears off, as was de rigueur at the time. So adamant was Bill Sr. in creating his own brand of refined, craftsman-style Bourbon, he sold the family distillery, burned their recipes, and started anew in Loretto by purchasing and renovating Burks’ Distillery in 1953. Using the water from a 14-acre spring-fed lake just a stone’s throw away and a new mash bill, Bill Sr. created Maker’s Mark Bourbon.
At least he created what went in the bottle, Margie Samuels created everything else. Even the bottle. Even the name. Even the letterpress label. And the iconic red wax seal – that was her idea.
She also set the tone for the Maker’s Mark campus. At that time, distilleries were unsightly industrial operations serving one purpose, a no-frills production. They weren’t the tourist destinations you see today. But if her husband was going to put such an emphasis on his hands-on style of Bourbon production, Margie wanted to make the place attractive enough where she could invite friends and members of the community over to come see for themselves.
“My grandmother complimented him in a lot of ways,” Rob Samuels said. “Her vision for the campus was to recreate a Victorian village, which is what you have here. All the projects we’ve done here since the beginning are really borne out of her original vision for the campus.”
Several decades later, to do something special to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of Maker’s Mark, Rob Samuels pulled a trick from his grandmother’s playbook – he wanted to have something created that visitors would want to come see.
He wanted to commission Chihuly, whose large glass sculpture pieces have been commissioned throughout the world, because he felt that the artist’s meticulous approach to his large-scale artwork was symbolically fitting of Maker’s Mark’s handmade essence. Samuels had to use a little handmade ingenuity of his own, however, to get a response from Chihuly after phone calls and emails went unreturned.
“Finally I wrote him a two-page, handwritten letter, and I said I’m an eighth generation whisky maker, my grandparents created this beautiful handmade brand, and our handmade bourbon is made probably more inefficiently than your process,” Samuels said. “We have a beautiful campus, I think it would be a beautiful backdrop to showcase a piece of your work uniquely inspired by Makers.
“He called me immediately.”
Initially, Samuels wanted the piece to fit above the bottle-dipping area in the gift shop, but on the night before Chihuly and his team was to visit Loretto, while watching a documentary about the artist’s work in Venice, where some pieces were displayed down dark, narrow alleys, Samuels thought an aisle of an aging warehouse would be the optimum canvas for the artist to work. Chihuly agreed, and “The Spirit of the Maker” began to take shape.
The piece ribbons the signature red hue from the wax bottle sealing throughout and gives a nod to the nearby lake with touches of blue – there’s even a few cherubs to watch over the “angel’s share.” It took Chihuly’s team five days to place each individual piece. During the unveiling, Samuels says Chihuly leaned over and said that he thought this venue was the most interesting environment where my work has been displayed.
“The Spirit of the Maker” was unveiled in the early spring, just a few weeks after Maker’s Mark announced a sizeable expansion plan to boost production for the coming years, but Samuels knows that as the company and its facilities grow, quality will always trump quantity.
“You almost assume that as we make a little bit more and bottle a little bit more and produce a little more, that the site itself is going to lose some of its charm. And it’s not, all of this and everything that we’re doing is all a continuation of my grandmother’s vision,” he said.
Chihuly Makes His Mark