The Spirit of Kentucky: 2 bourbons have found uncommon success in marketing

jpatton1@herald-leader.comAugust 10, 2013 

LORETTO — Two of today's best-selling high-end bourbons, Maker's Mark and Pappy Van Winkle, got their start in very different ways but their recipes for success have two things in common: wheat and non-traditional marketing.

Both bourbons use a recipe with sweeter wheat instead of the spicier rye grain. And both brands turned to important "influencers" — a major American newspaper and celebrity chefs — to get the word out.

The current era of celebrity bourbon is a far cry from the early days of Maker's Mark in the 1950s.

Back then, said Bill Samuels Jr., his father, Bill Samuels Sr., was determined to wait for the world to find his "whisky," which he spelled without an "E" in a nod to the family's Scottish distilling roots. Eventually, it did, through word of mouth.

"I am convinced the way he made us do it — obliquely — has positioned bourbon as the ultimate discovery spirit: It goes from friend to friend. Not just Maker's, but all bourbons. ... The bartender's going to spread the bourbon gospel to these emerging people whose curiosity has been aroused about what the hell is going on in Kentucky," Samuels said. "It may be intuitive now, but it wasn't 40 years ago. ...

"I am positive that we had some significant influence on the approach, especially since at the time, when everybody was scrambling around, we had the only one that was working, without some kind of gimmick, a special decanter, or something."

By 1980, Maker's Mark had become an iconic brand in Kentucky — but it was little known elsewhere, in part because the advertising budget of $1.2 million a year ran only to witty billboards in Louisville and a few ads in Southern Living and the regional editions of Time, Playboy and Penthouse.

But the younger Samuels, who had become company president in 1975, arranged to give the brand a little help. With the aid of some friends in public relations at Wenz-Neely in Louisville, the distillery's story was pitched to Wall Street Journal reporter David Garino, who liked it.

Samuels then had to get his father, who was beyond reluctant to give interviews, on board. His solution: a ruse.

"I told him I had an out-of-town fraternity brother who wanted to meet him," Samuels said. "I knew he wouldn't kill me until the guy left, because he was a gentleman. They ended up just falling in love with each other. ... And that's where it all started."

Garino's August front-page profile in the New York-based Journal had the phones ringing off the hook at Maker's Happy Hollow headquarters (and at the newspaper). Letters poured in from people who wanted the bourbon and couldn't find it because Maker's Mark was hardly distributed outside Kentucky.

Samuels and his father answered all the letters themselves. It took years.

It was an early lesson in the powerful stimulant that rarity can be on the bourbon market.

Jim Lindsey, then an executive at the Doe-Anderson advertising agency in Louisville working with Maker's Mark, said the distillery turned that to their advantage as "America's Most Searched-for Whisky."

They ran ads in The Wall Street Journal, he said, of the desperate fan letters. And they told customers, "You won't be able to find it so tell your local store to ask the wholesaler for it," Lindsey said.

"And have them put it under the counter and hold it for you," he said. "That 'under the counter' became the basis for the cult whiskey — I have it and you don't. We encouraged it any way we could."

The letters had one other benefit that survives to this day: customers could become Maker's Mark "ambassadors." As the brand expanded, Samuels wanted to keep the connection that existed when the bourbon was sold almost exclusively to Kentuckians.

Would-be ambassadors sign up, get their name on a barrel and wait six to seven years. The distillery sends them updates on "their" barrel's progress; then, when it is ready to be bottled, they are invited to come to Kentucky and tour the distillery with Samuels or his son, Rob, who now runs the day-to-day business.

They can also buy two bottles out of their barrel and hand-dip them in the famous red wax themselves.

Over the decades, thousands have signed up, giving Maker's Mark a very personal link to its customers.

"That's where the ambassador program came from," Bill Samuels said. "We ask folks to be Kentuckians, at least for this one product."

These days, Pappy Van Winkle, the ultra-premium bourbon seemingly coveted from coast to coast, sells itself, even at hundreds of dollars a bottle — if it can be found at all.

Julian Van Winkle, the driving force behind the brand, also credits word-of-mouth marketing. Particularly from the palates of celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain, David Chang and Sean Brock.

But that wasn't always the case.

In 1972, when his father was forced to sell out of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, about the only thing he took with him was the Old Rip Van Winkle label.

But he bought some 7-year-old Stitzel-Weller bourbon and got back in business, Van Winkle said.

"He sold a couple hundred cases," Van Winkle said. "Mostly in decanters."

What they were mostly selling was the ceramic gimmick; the bourbon was almost an afterthought.

"Everybody was in it because that was a good way to sell whiskey," Van Winkle said. "Because the bourbon business wasn't that great back then. You put them in fancy decanters — coal miners or duck hunters or whatever. It was a way to get rid of some whiskey and make a profit. We sold a ton of those."

Then, in the 1980s, decanters got to be about $50 and the market balked.

"Back then that was a lot for a bottle of whiskey," he said. "More than anyone wanted to pay."

So Julian Van Winkle III, who took over when his father died in 1981, went back to focusing on the bourbon instead of the bottle. In the mid-1990s, he came out with the "Pappy Van Winkle" label to honor his grandfather, and somewhere he hit upon some really good bourbon.

Van Winkle doesn't really say where. Much of his bourbon was still coming from old Stitzel-Weller stock (the distillery finally closed in 1992), but he also was buying it at a variety of distilleries including Buffalo Trace.

In March 1996, the Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago gave Pappy the first 99 out of 100 rating given to an American whiskey. The Van Winkle brands began to win awards in spirits competitions. And sales began to take off.

For years, the brand had a small but loyal following (particularly in the influential bar and restaurant industry) but that rating put Pappy on the map, according to Preston Van Winkle, marketing manager and Julian's son.

But, Van Winkle said, he still had too much leftover bourbon, so he kept coming out with new labels.

"I thought, well, I'll just design another label to get rid of this older whiskey," Van Winkle said. "So that's where the 'Pappy 23' label came from: excess whiskey. It's not like I thought to age this whiskey."

In 2002, Julian Van Winkle contracted with Buffalo Trace to produce bourbon as closely as possible to the original Stitzel-Weller recipe for the future. Like Maker's Mark, Pappy is "wheated," or made with wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain. The last of his Stitzel-Weller barrels will be bottled as 23-year-old Pappy in 2015.

Too much Pappy is a problem he will likely never have again.

"We hope to get up to 10,000, 15,000 cases someday," Van Winkle said. "We're selling everything we have now. People think we're holding back to keep the price up but we're not."

Now, Buffalo Trace doesn't even sell it in the Frankfort distillery's gift shop because customers, wise to when the shelves would be stocked, started camping out to be first in line. To keep things civil, they just don't offer it there anymore, said Amy Preske, distillery spokeswoman.

To fill the void, the Van Winkle family has gotten back into merchandise. Van Winkle's daughters recently launched Pappy & Co., a line of T-shirts based on the bourbon labels.

Stores who can't get the bourbon say, "Give us something," Van Winkle said. And it gives fans something to get signed.

These days, like all the master distillers and major brand ambassadors, Van Winkle never goes anywhere without an autographing pen in his pocket.

"And a flask," he said.

There are no plans to add a flavored expression to extend the product line, but a "white," unaged Pappy? That might be a different story.

"I think it'd be fun," Van Winkle said. "Pappy White Dog? You think that would sell?"

Janet Patton: (859) 231-2364. Twitter: janetpattonhl

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