Bill Samuels Jr., president of bourbon distiller Maker's Mark, announced Wednesday that he intends to retire in April, ending 35 years at the helm of the company known for its bottles with red wax and its distillery in Loretto.
Among his biggest accomplishments is his marketing of bourbon, contributing to the so-called "bourbon revolution" that saw it shed the image of being your parents' drink and becoming a spirit for all ages.
"It wasn't all that long ago — 15 to 20 years — that most industry pundits were casting bourbon off to that great liquor store in the sky," recalled Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill Distilleries and a friend of Samuels since they attended high school in Bardstown. "Fortunately, that never happened. While there's any number of factors that led to that, Bill and his promotion of his company and the promotion of the brand and his very unique personality ... helped, no doubt."
While Maker's Mark is owned by Beam Global Spirits & Wine, the company will stay in the family, so to speak, as Samuels' son, Rob, will take the reins after his father's retirement. Rob Samuels became chief operating officer in October. Bill Samuels, 70, will move to the symbolic role of chairman emeritus, which means two things, the charismatic Samuels joked.
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"It means my wife's happy because I won't be at home, and it means I don't have any authority," he said.
Endorsing his son, he added, "It's pretty obvious to me and anybody else around here that at 36, Rob is a whole lot more qualified than I was at the same age, and I took over at 35."
He also said his son will be able to better relate to the company's customers who are younger, though Rob Samuels said in an interview that it's "less about age and more about mind-set."
"The next generation are very open-minded to Maker's Mark," Rob Samuels said, adding that "these are the best times for premium bourbon. Our biggest problem is we don't have enough bourbon."
Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, said Maker's Mark "could not be in better hands."
"Rob is a dynamic young leader who will follow in Bill's footsteps and continue the Samuels legacy of making a fine bourbon and being a champion for Kentucky," he said.
Bill Samuels said now is the best time for the transition because the company has launched its new Maker's 46 bourbon and has achieved the milestone of producing a million cases annually.
"Me being a fan of Joe DiMaggio, I learned a lot from him: Go out while you're on top," said Samuels, who will step down April 15 at the Thoroughbreds & Redheads event in conjunction with the Maker's Mark Mile race at Keeneland.
In his new position, Samuels will continue to be a face of the brand, a part of the marketing for which he became well-known as he took Maker's Mark from a small bourbon to a national brand.
Samuels is the seventh generation of the family to make bourbon, dating back to Robert Samuels in 1784. Before announcing his retirement, he recalled how his views of marketing were shaped.
"Dad was such a maniac against marketing," he said of the company's founder, Bill Samuels Sr. "He didn't like the idea of trying to trick people into buying something they didn't want to buy. His whole idea was just ... depend on folks to tell their friends."
Samuels Jr. said he has continued his father's views by crafting marketing campaigns that look as if they would come from a friend, because "when you're talking to a friend, you talk differently than when you're trying to impress a stranger."
"That's why our ads all seem a little eccentric," he said. "You're not trying to show off to friends; you're just being who you are. And I'm a little strange just by nature."
While he won't necessarily be out of the public eye, Samuels said he would leave the state with one message about the bourbon industry:
"Kentucky has a jewel — a jewel that will provide many jobs and much taxation," he said. "Treat us like we're family, because we can do great things for the commonwealth over the next 15 to 20 years."