By Richard Thomas
When Maker’s Mark says they love having visitors stop by the distillery, that isn’t a modern thing. My first visit was in 1992, when even Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection was new. At that time, it was the only distillery in the state that could be called a proper tourist destination, that due in large part to Margie Samuels’ eye for attractive detail. The matriarch of the Samuels Clan passed away in 1985, but left an indelible mark in creating the Maker’s Mark brand with its name, red wax seal and logo.
The times and tourism have caught up with Maker’s, as now every distillery has set itself up to put on a good show for visitors. What is more, the scale of tourism and the demand for bourbon have wrought plenty of changes on Maker’s Mark over the years. Even so, the handiwork of Margie Samuels continues to ensure that Maker’s Mark has the second prettiest distillery in the state, right after Woodford Reserve.
Down There In Loretto
One of the long-standing oddities about Maker’s Mark and tourism is its rather remote location. Although not as hard to find as it used to be, the distillery’s home in Loretto, Kentucky isn’t even the most central place in Marion County, where the knobs offered plenty of hideholes for the pot-farming Cornbread Mafia of the 1980s.
One would think that only a diehard few would make the trip, but make it they do. The route is better signposted now than it was twenty years ago, but I suggest planning on it taking longer than Google Maps or your GPS suggests. The road winds a bit, and the odds of finding yourself stuck behind a slow-moving truck or tractor and unable to pass are fair to high.
The Maker’s Mark Tour isn’t free anymore, at least not for those who are legal to drink! These days, tickets are free only for active duty military and those under 21. The normal tour, which lasts an hour and involves plenty of walking from building to building, is $12. These depart hourly, every day of the week excepting holidays. More specialized, involved and expensive tours of the distillery are also available.
The Maker’s Mark property provides a pretty, rural setting, providing a fitting backdrop for the mid-century Victorian buildings that make up the compound. Most of these are painted in the black with red trim that characterizes the distillery, but others have a farmhouse look that could have come straight from a picture book. Forming a border separating the main complex from the parking lot is the much-photographed creek, bordered by stone retaining walls.
The still house now boasts three huge gleaming tub-like copper crowns, two of them built as exact clones of the original in recent expansions. The distillery has also retained its cypress fermenting vats, even with cypress planking of the size required in short supply. Maker’s Mark gets at least some of the wood used to repair those vats by buying up other, similar vats and cannibalizing their serviceable timber for spare parts. It’s a commitment to tradition, and a rather handsome tradition at that.
One new feature is the tourist barrel house with tasting/lecture rooms. Running through the middle of the rickhouse display is the custom-made ceiling glass installation by esteemed artist Dale Chihuly. The work of this 75 year old artist is so well-known that some folks visit Maker’s Mark just to see this installation, and for them the bourbon tour is just a bonus.
The distillery continues to offer what is a highlight, and genuine treat for any Maker’s Mark fan, the opportunity to dip your own bottle. Just buy one at the gift shop and ask for the opportunity, and you’ll be taken over to a dipping station. Put as much or as little wax on that cap and neck as you want.