04/07/2011 1:36PM

Q&A: Bill Samuels Jr.

Matt Anderson

President of the popular bourbon whisky Maker’s Mark, which sponsors the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Mile, to be run April 15 at Keeneland.

Birthdate: June 14, 1940, in Louisville, Ky.

Family: wife, Nancy; sons, Taylor, Mark, Rob; daughter, Samantha

Got into racing because . . . “We have had a close family relationship with Keeneland. I’ve always admired the way they went at it. I don’t get to the track but a couple of times a year. My father thought enough of them, back in 1958, that the first shipment from the distillery went to Keeneland. The first order of Maker’s Mark went to Keeneland. That goes back to the beginning of our company. Keeneland for years and years and years did not accept sponsorships or affiliates. When they decided to dip their toe in the water, they came to Toyota and us. I think they figured we would understand Keeneland’s soft touch and respect it. It was pretty much a natural affiliation.”

What made you want to link Maker’s Mark with a top graded race at Keeneland? “If we were going to do it, we wanted to do it right. It also gave us an excuse to spend a couple of days at Keeneland. We could invite brand fans to the racetrack. The next thing you know, we were hosting several thousand of these fans from around the country.”

I’ve seen those fans lined up for hours waiting to get their bottles signed. You always tie it in with something, like people associated with the University of Kentucky basketball team: “We’ve done that for about five or six years. This year celebrates the 75th anniversary of Keeneland. One of our most memorable series was the Triple Crown series. We had living owners and jockeys come to sign, like Penny Chenery, Steve Cauthen, Ron Turcotte, and Jean Cruguet.”

What other projects has your company done in conjunction with racing? “We also have a VIP tent for the Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway. Those are the only ones I get involved in. The ones we have gotten involved in are particularly well done because they are both associated with Keeneland. My experience is, anything they do, they do well.”

You are retiring on the day of the Maker’s Mark Mile, handing over the reins to your son Rob after overseeing Maker’s Mark for 35 years. This year marks the 15th anniversary of sponsoring the Maker’s Mark Mile. Will Maker’s Mark remain in racing? “He’s got to consider that. Personally, I hope so. One thing I’m not doing is leaving him with a list of must-dos.”

Is there a commonality that makes ­Kentucky the best place to raise horses and make bourbon whisky? “They are Kentucky’s two original industries, and the two that we’re known for around the world. They’ve kind of gone hand in hand. The bourbon region and the Thoroughbred bluegrass region are essentially the same, the same geography, all because of the geology. There’s a kinship in a number of areas. In the old days, distillers had significant farms.”

What’s the geological connection? “The shelf. It’s not just the limestone. It’s in layers, with shale spacers. Shale gives the water a place to run, and the more velocity and flow, the harder the water.”

Most people think of spelling whisky with an “e,” but you don’t. Why? “It was a choice. The English-Irish spelling, the new spelling, came into vogue in the 1890s. We’re Scottish. Our family owned and operated a distillery in Kentucky for 50 years before the new spelling, so we kept on with the old spelling.”

How did it come about to seal the bottles in red wax, which has become a signature of the brand? “That was great. Mom was the smart one in the family. She was a wizard. She was very determined. She decided on her own that she would take over the package design in the 1950s. It takes a number of years for bourbon to age. She went to the basement and started her design. She had great taste. She had one the world’s foremost collections of English pewter. That’s where the ‘Mark’ came from. Her education was in chemistry, and she did calligraphy as a hobby. She had a small collection of mid-19th century cognac, sealed in wax. The name, the shape of the bottle, the wax, it all came from that. She thought the bottles needed more of a visual cue. With her chemistry background, she was able to reduce the viscosity so as to get the drippings. Spirit bottles had been sealed in wax for hundreds and hundreds of years, but she was the first to get the drippings. She also forced pigment into the solution to get the sheen. She did all that in her basement.”

Best horse seen? “That’s easy. I’ve only been to one Belmont. It was Secretariat. I get goosebumps thinking about it. When we had important visitors to the distillery who were interested in Thoroughbreds, we’d take them to see Secretariat. Young Arthur Hancock and I went to Vanderbilt together. He’d set it up with Seth. Seeing Secretariat was like seeing Babe Ruth. I used to like to see people’s reactions when they saw him.”

Future ambitions? “I’m not much at sitting around. I’ve already been trapped into a couple of jobs. I’m the chair of the capital campaign for Bellarmine University here in Louisville. And I’ve agreed to chair the Bridges Coalition, a major project here in Louisville.”