One evening in 1957, Marjorie Samuels took a seat at the kitchen table and firmly set down a bourbon bottle. It had been dipped in thick, bright red wax, and had dried after dripping down the bottle’s neck. The cream-colored label was hand-torn and carefully centered. Samuels proudly displayed it to her husband and three children, and then declared this bottle design the future of Maker’s Mark.
Her husband, Bill Samuels, the founder of Maker’s Mark, pushed back, unsure that the design concept could be scaled. Marge pushed harder, saying he could figure out how to make it work. Bill Samuels Jr., a senior in high school at the time, watched his parents bicker. He was used to his mother’s ideas for his father’s business, and waited for her to play her trump card to win the argument: the fact that Marge finished first in their class at the University of Louisville, and Bill Sr. finished last.
That was the end of the conversation, and the beginning of an era for bourbon. Marge had revolutionized the packaging and marketing of distilled liquor with the signature red wax, hand-torn labels, and classic font that spelled “WHISKY” across that bottle.
Almost 60 years later, women are still making big decisions at Maker’s Mark. Victoria MacRae-Samuels is the vice president of operations, and has been in the spirits industry for more than 25 years, having learned to make whiskey from Jim Beam’s grandson. She’s a rarity—female executives are still few and far between at distilleries—but MacRae-Samuels and Marge Samuels (who are distant cousins, by marriage) are just two of the many women throughout history who changed the course of distillation as it made its way from Mesopotamia to the Scottish countryside to rural Kentucky. In fact, Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter is credited with the first recipe, discovered in 1818, for sour mash—the basis for whiskey.