- Historic Sites
The American Spirit
Bourbon whiskey has had a long, rugged ride from the frontier to the top shelf
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
The thirties and forties were a time of turmoil as the bourbon industry tried to re-establish itself. One outside outfit that came on the scene was Austin, Nichols & Company, a food distributor looking to expand into wines and liquors. Around 1940 its president, Thomas McCarthy, served an experimental eight-year-old bourbon from one of his new distilleries to three friends on an annual turkey hunt. They liked it so much they made him bring it again the next year. Then they gave it a name: Wild Turkey.
Prohibition put the industry out of business for fourteen years, but “Repeal hurt us more,” says the distiller Bill Samuels.
“Times stayed tough,” says Bill Samuels. “Roosevelt shut down the distilleries in 1943 for two years without any warning, to make industrial alcohol for the war effort. Then in 1953 the distillers all knew Truman would shut them down, so they made too much whiskey, and then he didn’t.” Samuels, one of the great men of bourbon today, is a seventh-generation distiller whose great-greatgreat-great-grandfather had a still in Pennsylvania in 1779. His wife’s family goes back in whiskey just as far: Her ancestor Wattie Boone, a cousin of Daniel Boone, hired Abraham Lincoln’s father to work at his distillery, and family records show that when Thomas Lincoln was forced to sell the family farm in 1816 for twenty dollars and four hundred gallons of whiskey and move to Indiana, his destitution was caused partly by alcoholism. “He had taken one whole month’s rent on the farm in advance in pints of whiskey,” Samuels says. “It’s there in the records.”
Samuels’s grandfather rebuilt the T. W. Samuels distillery after Prohibition and passed it along to his son. “My father was more a craftsman than a businessman,” Samuels says, “and he was distressed by the quality of the stuff. He shut the business down in 1943.” He wasn’t satisfied making no bourbon at all, though, and ten years later he was back with the idea of starting from scratch to make the best bourbon he possibly could. The result was Maker’s Mark, the first of the new highend bourbons of the last half-century.
“He couldn’t get any bank money in 1953,” Samuels says. “The banks said bourbon was finished, and they were right. From then until five years ago the market stayed completely flat.” Nonetheless the elder Samuels bought a small distillery in Loretto, near Bardstown, that had been in operation off and on since 1805. He consulted Julian Van Winkle, a revered distiller who had entered the business sixty years before, and, baking loaves of bread to test the flavors of various grain combinations, came up with a recipe that used winter wheat instead of rye along with the usual corn and barley for a smoother, gentler drink. T. William Samuels’s wife gave the whiskey its name, drew its label, and thought up the wax dipping that gives the bottle its distinctive look. It hit the market in 1959.
“The fifteen years after Prohibition ended were the worst for bourbon,” Bill Samuels says, “but the sixties and seventies were bad too. And the distillers reacted by trying to out-vodka vodka.” After all, the fifties had been the era of the three-martini lunch, not the three-bourbon lunch, and now most Americans were simply drinking less than ever before. Bill Samuels didn’t follow his father into the unpromising business at first; he became a rocket scientist. “I was the guy who designed the thrust injection nozzle for the second stage of the Atlas 2 missile,” he says. “Then my father asked me to come into the business. He said rocket fuel and whiskey are about the same anyway. In 1975 I became president, and I thought at best there was a fiftyfifty chance that Maker’s Mark would survive. Bourbon was on the way out. All I could think was, I didn’t want to be the one who turns out the lights at the end. I could see seven generations all looking through their tombstones at me. But my father said two things: Don’t quit, and don’t cheapen the product. He asked me to promise, and I did.
“In 1981 Senator Dole floated a balloon about doubling the excise tax on alcohol. That looked like the end of everything. By then we were the premium of choice within a hundred-mile radius, but only in the last three or four years has business really picked up. A big part of it is Japan.” For bourbon, as for that other American cultural pinnacle, jazz, the most intense connoisseurship in recent years has been in Japan, and the Orient has largely sustained an American product that Americans themselves tend to take for granted. In the last dozen years, as overall bourbon sales have declined slightly, a new crop of expensive bourbons has arisen and flourished, and their success has been fueled by demand in the Far East.