Women who shaped whisky history

8th March, 2019 by admin

Marjorie Samuels, Maker’s Mark

When you walked into a liquor store in 1950s America, all bottles pretty much looked the same. They were bulbous and every Bourbon was titled ‘old’ this or that, or named after a dead man. Maker’s Mark looked like a red dress in a sea of grey when it hit shelves late in the decade. Co­-founder Marjorie Samuels was the brains behind the name and the now iconic red dripping wax seal.

During the school year of 1956, Bill Samuels Jr was the associate photography editor for his yearbook and set up a photo lab in his basement. When Marjorie Samuels became the de facto research and development director for bottling at Maker’s Mark, she tossed her son’s photography equipment and set up a half­-size drafting table. Marge created a bottle shape out of papier­-mâché, with a handcrafted tattered label. She wanted to create a bottle that looked more like French Cognac decanters, which she believed displayed a greater sense of artistry. These Cognac bottles used wax to seal the cork instead of industrial tape.

Marge believed this design feature complemented the idea of a crafted product, but she wanted the wax to jump out and grab attention instead of just serving a functional purpose. Her vision was to let the wax drip down the bottleneck like a candle and become the unnamed whiskey’s trademark look.

She took the deep fryer from the kitchen into her bottling lab in the basement. “We went seven months without French fries or fried fish,” remembers Bill Samuels Jr. Heating the materials in the fryer, Marge trialled different viscosities, making the wax thinner or thicker, and various colour pigments, eventually settling on an eye­-popping red. She added a plasticiser to generate the visual effect she wanted.

Marge dipped the curvy bottle into her red wax invention, letting the hot wax drip down the bottleneck to form tendrils, and placed her handmade label on the bottle of whiskey she named Maker’s Mark. As a collector of fine pewter, Marge always searched for the “mark of the maker”, which inspired the branding of her family’s pioneering product.

Not only did Marge’s idea for the bottle revolutionise liquor packaging and set a landmark trademark law, her visitor­-friendly vision for the distillery planted the first seed for the creation of the popular Kentucky Bourbon Trail, one of the state’s most important tourism features. As he looks back on his mother’s contributions, Bill Samuels Jr can’t help but wonder what would have happened if society had afforded Marge the same opportunities as men. “I think generally women have been way under-utilised,” he says.

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