Following the rail fences along the rolling hills of Loretto, Kentucky, I entered Star Hill Farm's open wrought iron gates, welcomed by Maker's Mark distillery as an honored dignitary. But more importantly, I went to retrieve bottles of cask-strength bourbon from my personal barrel—a seven-year endeavor coming to fruition.
After decades of enjoying gin and rum, my Kentucky heritage (on my mom's side of the family) led me on a personal education and exploration of bourbon many years earlier. Not having a taste for Scotch or Irish whiskies, much less any other versions, it came as a surprise to me that the uniquely American-made bourbon appealed to me.
It started subtly with mint juleps as we celebrated Kentucky Derby parties in earlier years. Then bourbon and branch water. Next, it was bourbon and ginger ale, upgrading to ginger beer (aka Kentucky Mule). When visiting family and friends, I was goaded (double-dog dared?) into bourbon neat, and once I mastered the art of navigating the "Kentucky Hug" (Hint: exhale through your mouth after you swallow), I realized there was an undiscovered fondness that needed to be nurtured.
Maker's Mark Ambassador
In researching bourbons' taste profiles and a lot of other aspects I knew nothing about, I stumbled across the Maker's Mark® Ambassador program offered by the distillery. Signing up was—and still is—free. Cautiously skeptical, after I joined, I happily discovered that unlike similar programs, no financial obligations, obvious or hidden, existed. Quite the opposite.
Almost immediately, Maker's Mark began a welcoming campaign to foster a connection with letters via "snail mail"—small but very cool presents at Christmas, birthday cards, and heads-up emails about special deals and events just for ambassadors. And most notably, the excitement built year over year as Maker's Mark notified me of when my barrel of bourbon in my name was created, and its progress aging over the next 5-7 years. At no point did they require any fees. Brilliant
The distillery had created a remarkable marketing program that not only enhanced interest in their company, but built a subliminal level of brand loyalty that even I as a marketing professional did not expect to experience. There are other brands of bourbon I appreciate and even prefer, yet after becoming a Maker's Mark® Ambassador, I found myself selecting the wax-topped bottles over competing labels when asked which whiskey I preferred in my cocktails by bartenders. I was, after all, an ambassador, and felt the responsibility to represent. Ingenious.
About halfway through the aging process, I planned a week-long getaway with a friend from New York City—who was new to bourbon and never been to Kentucky—to traverse the Bourbon Trail. The trek was fundamentally mapped out based on visiting Maker's Mark. We were both in awe as we first approached the understated Star Hill Farm tucked in the hills of Loretto.
Maker's Mark distillery, started in 1953 when Bill Samuel, Sr.—a fourth generation distiller—and his wife Margie bought Star Hill Farm as a distillery. It has a Disney-like quality with its pristine grounds and picture-perfect preserved buildings. Unlike a Disney park, however, the distillery, covered bridge, original drive-thru liquor store (horse-drawn buggies, not cars), and countless buildings are all historically authentic and painstakingly maintained. The aptly named Whiskey River—original source of the limestone filtered water distinct to their bourbon—still meanders through the complex.
All Bourbons are Whiskey
Unlike other whiskies, bourbon is distinctive by being mostly made with corn (51% or more), made with limestone filtered water unique to that region of Kentucky, and—by law—aged in charred new oak barrels which gives the clear liquid its amber color.
As learned on the many tours that week, bourbon got its name because of the county from which it originated. Founded in 1785, Bourbon County was then part of a much larger Virginia.
The process also requires bourbon to be aged for at least two years—and often four or more. The timeline is derived from the pre-steamship age when barrels of the colorful whiskey were shipped from Bourbon County by sailboat, navigating down the Ohio River until it fed into the Mississippi and found its way to sit at a warehouse for an indefinite amount of time in—you guessed it—a steamy New Orleans.
It would be several more months before the brown liquor arrived at its destination in New York, Boston, or other global port, allowing the whiskey a full two years or more to age in alternating heat and cold.
The shipped barrels were tracked by stamps indicating their port of origin and contents: "Bourbon, Whiskey." When Kentucky became a state a decade later, the limestone- and corn-rich region outside Lexington, and later the state, became synonymous with the spirit.
My Old Kentucky Home
I was excited to finally receive an elegant congratulatory Maker's Mark fold-out containing a golden ticket (Charlie heading to the "Chocolate Factory") notifying me my barrel was finally ready—seven years since joining. While I was not under any obligation to purchase anything, they presented a six-month window of time to schedule visiting the distillery, receive a gift, and be given an exclusive complimentary tour for graduating ambassadors—and purchase bottles from my personally named barrel if I wanted to. Again, no obligation, just information. I wanted to.
Returning to Star Hill Farms as a Maker's Mark Ambassador to pick up my personalized bourbon felt triumphant. I was joined by a close friend from Louisville to share this milestone. A lifelong Louisvillian, he had never been to a rural distillery, so he was unexpectedly excited to be there as well. We were greeted at the welcome center with V.I.P. badges and gifts. Soon, the announcement called all graduating Ambassadors to meet our guide, Laura.
Laura welcomed us with remarkable enthusiasm, surprised to be leading Ambassadors like myself from far-and-wide. Others have traveled long distances as well, including Chicago and New York City. We were all there to retrieve our bourbon and share this moment at Maker's Mark.
The aroma of the "angel's share" (sugar vapor that evaporates into the air during the distilling process, ostensibly Bourbon for the angels) hits immediately upon entering a rickhouse full of aging barrels, and I'm home.
Star Hill Farm's lush grounds include an on-site bar and café as well as authentic carriages, wagons, water pumps, and a covered bridge. Art celebrating the distillery adorn the property, even inside. In 2014, the distillery commissioned world renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly to create an original 36-foot by 6-foot glass ceiling installation, The Spirit of the Maker complete with angels getting their share, to mark the distillery's 60th Anniversary. Most notably however, all the Victorian-style, c. 1800 buildings are painted similarly: brown to represent the bourbon color, and—of course representing the trademark red wax— there are silhouettes of Bourbon bottles in the windows' red shutters.
Touring the farm was similar to the standard visit, but Laura ensured there was a V.I.P. level of flexibility, explanation, and timeliness for new visitors, and additional information for return visitors. At the end of the tour, we saw eight of the buildings comprising the whiskey production process, from planning taste profiles through bottling.
Even the marketing by Margie Samuels was covered. Beginning with the fact that although the spelling of American whiskey includes an "e," Maker's Mark labels spells their product "whisky" as a nod to their family's Scottish-Irish heritage. Aspects such as logo creation, bottle design, label design with her handwritten typeface, printing on a classic letter press, and the trademarked dripping red wax bottles were all implemented by Margie, the first female Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer. Other whiskey bottles can have red wax, or even dripping wax, but not both. Since 1985, Marker's Mark is legally the only distillery allowed to have the red, dripping wax seal atop their bottles.
Topping Off the Bourbon
At the conclusion of the tour, each Ambassador was given their prearranged allotment of Maker's Mark cask-strength bourbon from their personal barrel already bottled up. The Ambassadors had their respective name and Ambassador number emblazoned on their labels. Each was then afforded the opportunity to put on aprons, gloves, safety goggles, and arm protection to dip their bottles into hot melted red wax to personally seal their own batch—complete with a three-turn twist to ensure the perfect amount of their signature red wax drips. Finally, a stamp on the hot wax top, branding it a batch from the barrels with the year it is fully matured.
While the Maker's Mark Ambassador program is effectively free, it does inspire a sense of pride and a sort-of guerilla branding that companies simply can't buy—and Maker's Mark pulls it off brilliantly.
In the end, it's difficult to not have a level of brand loyalty instilled in this brand that subtly brings Bourbon enthusiasts into the Samuels family fold. And not only does the program give one pause when deciding which bourbon to order, it also sends their Ambassadors out wearing and sharing promotional items with the world.
But it's Maker's Mark's long-game approach that is most impressive. While some bourbon may be purchased by those reporting back to the home office in Loretto after 5-7 years, it is the constant steady flow of graduating Ambassadors over years that builds on the brand's mystique and contributes to tourism, bolstering the commonwealth's economy.
Coming from a state that brings the New Orleans Bourbon Festival to the world in September, that's worth signing up for.