Eighth-Generation Bourbon Distiller Makes His Mark in the Spirits Industry

by Myscha Theirault

Rob Samuels, current COO of Maker’s Mark, comes by his passion for bourbon honestly. His Scotch-Irish immigrant ancestor and namesake started the family distilling tradition upon arrival in Kentucky back in 1780. True to his roots, Rob created his very first Maker’s Mark holiday advertisement when he was just nine years of age. Not only was the ad published, it was also cited as the best business advertisement of 1982 by Malcolm Forbes.

While his destiny may have been clear, Samuels was determined to earn his way to the top. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in applied sciences from the University of South Carolina, Rob went on to work in a variety of industry posts, building his executive experience and skill set as he went. Here’s what Samuels had to say during a recent interview.

MT: What are your top tips for new spirit producers?

Samuels: Patience, passion and commitment to what makes your product out of the ordinary.

MT: Which obstacles do you see as providing the greatest challenges to marketing a particular spirit brand?

Samuels: Clarity around the role of marketing. Brand vision must influence all aspects of production, including connecting with consumers in a way that is unique and reflects the authentic essence of the brand. With Maker’s for example, the brand behavior and positioning reflects the personality of my grandfather.

MT: Your family background in whisky production goes back quite some time. What’s it like to have all of that history behind you? Does it make you feel pressured, inspired or both?

Samuels: I’m the eighth generation of the Samuels family involved with producing whisky here in Kentucky, and I do have a since of pride in the family legacy and that of our industry. I am proudest of my grandparents’ vision, their legacy of creating the brand that launched the birthplace of the modern era of bourbon, and my father for nurturing the Maker’s brand for forty plus years in a way that managed growth and preserved the handmade essence and quality. Here we are, sixty years after Maker’s was born, and the whisky is made today exactly as the start.

MT: From your employment history, it certainly looks like you took the time to work your way to the top. What jobs along the way provided you with the greatest insight for your current role as the Maker’s Mark COO?

Samuels: I spent ten years outside the shadows of Kentucky and Maker’s Mark, working for a different company within the industry. Those experiences gave me the opportunity to learn the business by working alongside many talented leaders. I never wanted my father to feel obligated to hire his son. My goal was to build my own track record and be invited home to work alongside the Maker’s Mark team.

While the original family recipe certainly became well entrenched in local lore and culture, it was the swapping out of rye for soft, red winter wheat in 1952 that resulted in the Maker’s Mark we know today. This is the bourbon Rob Samuels grew up with, and the bourbon he so proudly continues to represent.

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