When fans line up early Friday morning for the annual signing of limited-edition Maker's Mark bottles at Keeneland Race Course, they will be part of a tradition that stretches back decades.
This is the 17th special-edition bottle commemorating Maker's Mark's long history with Keeneland, where the distillery sponsors the Maker's 46 Mile, to be run Friday. This year's version honors University of Kentucky basketball great Dan Issel, with proceeds from the sale to benefit UK's Gill Heart Institute.
All the bottles, and the Maker's Mark trophy, are on display in Keeneland's clubhouse. All told, sales of the special bottles have raised about $8 million, when matching funds are included, for local charities including the Keeneland Charitable Foundation, former UK men's basketball coach Tubby Smith's foundation, the UK Basketball Museum, the Secretariat Center, the Markey Cancer Center, the UK Symphony Orchestra and the School of Music, and the heart institute.
But the relationship really goes back many years.
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Bill Samuels Jr., chairman emeritus of Maker's Mark, said the goal from the beginning was to do something special, something more than just sponsor a race, which Maker's began doing 19 years ago. Samuels said he and former Keeneland president Nick Nicholson came up with the charity bottles and the group signing as a way to set it apart.
"Keeneland won't do aggressive promotions, but they felt comfortable doing something for the community," Samuels said. "It's been a lot of fun."
Samuels said he thinks the track got the first full case of his bourbon ever sold.
"I've got the first invoice, sold to the very first distributor," Samuels said. House of Nelson in Louisville "only took but one case because the distributor didn't have much confidence in it at first."
In 1958, the salesman for the House of Nelson was a man named Jack Smith, Samuels said. He asked Smith later to whom he sold those bottles.
"He said he sold it all to Keene-land because it seemed like the right audience," Samuels said. That was in May, after the spring meet was over. "So it really didn't go on sale to customers at the races until the fall. ... It was a lot slower than you can imagine in the beginning."
That was then, this is now.
Maker's doesn't hang around very long. It's the most popular bourbon at Keeneland (followed by Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve).
Mike Wolken, head of Turf Catering, which handles food service at the track, said that Keeneland typically goes through about 250 cases of Maker's a year. That includes about 100 each race meet, between the bars and the bourbon-laced sauce for the bread pudding.
"I will let you in on a secret: That sauce goes great in coffee, too," Wolken said. He said he often takes a little home, if any is left over. "I spoon it in my coffee in the morning."
Wolken said his grandfather, Turf Catering co-founder Joe Wolken, corroborated the story of buying the first case of Maker's Mark.
"We're very proud of that," Mike Wolken said. And the 1958 bottles didn't last long.
"I wish I had that first case — I could retire."
The signing is 6:30 to 9 a.m. Friday at Keeneland Race Course, 4201 Versailles Road, but unless you got a free signing ticket Thursday night, you might be out of luck. You must have already bought your bottle before arriving; no bottles will be available to buy at Keeneland. There are many rules about the signing. For more information, visit Keeneland.com/calendar/makers-mark-bottle-signing.