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Leisure: Spirit of 46

Jack Smith

The 14th running of the Maker’s Mark Mile is just minutes away, and the moment here at Keeneland—the fabled horse track in Lexington, Ky.—is magic. Pink and white blossoms veil the dogwoods; tents striped in green and cream billow like sails over the lawn; and brass-buttoned blazers attire the male onlookers, while broad-brimmed hats and gossamer sundresses clothe the ladies. As the horses emerge from the stables, they all look like winners; the finely boned Thoroughbreds appear almost weightless prancing around the paddock, their jockeys teetering high in the stirrups over saddles not much larger than a wallet.

Every race at Keeneland is an event, but the grand finale this April day is especially memorable. Aside from providing the $300,000 purse, the race’s sponsor is commemorating the occasion with a collector’s bottle of its celebrated bourbon. The electric-blue container—a striking departure from Maker’s Mark’s more subdued clear bottle with red-wax-dipped top—bears the likeness of the University of Kentucky’s John Calipari, the new head basketball coach of the Wildcats. Maker’s Mark is donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of the limited-edition series of 24,000 numbered 750 ml bottles to the university’s Symphony Orchestra outreach program, which introduces the performing arts to local elementary-school children.

Especially coveted are the roughly 1,200 limited-edition bottles being autographed at Keeneland today by the race’s principals: Calipari, Maker’s Mark President Bill Samuels Jr., and Keeneland CEO Nick Nicholson. At past Maker’s Mark Mile races, bottles were signed on a first-come-first-served basis, and bourbon aficionados turned out en masse for the chance to obtain a personalized one. In 2009, University of Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks was the honoree, and hundreds waited overnight at the track to get their bottles signed. This year, however, prospective collectors obtained tickets for the signing ritual beforehand, and at six o’clock this morning, the line was moving slowly past the table where Calipari, Samuels, and Nicholson would spend the next four hours autographing bottles for one happy ticket holder after another.

The day will be longest for Samuels. Later he will don a Roman legionnaire’s costume and host a toga party in a huge tent in a parking lot in downtown Lexington, where a rock band, food, and, naturally, copious pours of bourbon will entertain some 4,000 sheet-draped Maker’s Mark "ambassadors," or brand enthusiasts. "When you’re an ambassador, you get your name on a barrel when it’s put aside to age," says Lexington car dealer Langdon Shoop as he relaxes in his VIP suite at the track. Ambassadors like Shoop also receive periodic updates during the roughly seven years it takes for their bourbon to age, as well as the chance to acquire rare, special-release bottles and ambassadors-only Maker’s Mark merchandise.

Earlier this year, Shoop and other ambassadors had their first taste of Maker’s 46—the distillery’s only new bourbon in nearly six decades—months ahead of its July release. The buzz surrounding the spirit is, as one might imagine, considerable.

But for now our attention turns: It is post time. The last punters have laid their bets, and, with the horses finally having been cajoled into the starting gate, the bell sounds, the gate swings open, and . . . they’re off! A great din rises from the spectators as the horses circle the track. The grandstand rocks under the noise as Karelian, an 8-year-old gelding, takes the outside lead and crosses the finish line in 1 minute and 34.33 seconds, barely three-fourths of a second off the track record.

To understand the relationship between horse racing and bourbon, or why anybody might rise before dawn and go to the track to have a bottle of whiskey autographed, you have to know Kentucky.

"It’s something in the water," says James E. Bassett III, former president and current trustee emeritus of Keeneland.

He is not speaking metaphorically. Kentucky is blessed with vast resources of spring water and limestone-rich soil; together they yield land ideally suited for growing Kentucky bluegrass and raising winning horses. Moreover, the same water that produces Kentucky’s equine champions has also nurtured another fine tradition in the state—bourbon.

"The water in these parts is naturally filtered through limestone," says Maker’s Mark’s master distiller, Kevin Smith. "It’s a lot like the water in the Scottish Highlands."

Thus, Kentucky’s pastureland is lush, home to Appaloosas, Tennessee Walkers, ponies, mustangs, Saddlebreds, Arabians, Clydesdales, Lipizzans, Icelandics, mules, Shetlands, Trakehners, and quarter horses, to name but a handful. But the breed that has made the state synonymous with fine horseflesh and brought lavish mansions and stately barns to the landscape is the Thoroughbred. While Thoroughbred horse farms are found throughout the state, by far the largest concentration—not only in Kentucky, but also in the world—is in Lexington and the surrounding Bluegrass counties of Bourbon, Scott, Jessamine, and Woodford. Here you will find about 500 plots, each surrounded by miles of gleaming white or jet-black plank fencing.

Lexington and Louisville and their racetracks—Keeneland and Churchill Downs (site of the Kentucky Derby), respectively—are different, and their distinguishing characteristics are as much cultural as they are geographical. "During the Civil War, Kentucky was split," says Bassett. "Louisville fell to the north, Lexington fell to the South." He contends that, to this day, the sense of Southern gentility is stronger in Lexington than in Louisville. "Churchill Downs is a corporate racetrack; its goal is to provide shareholders with a maximum return on investment," he says. "Keeneland is a nonprofit; we race to improve the breed."

Keeneland is also famous for clinging to tradition. For instance, it was the last track in North America to install a public address system for calling races. Until 1997 it was up to each onlooker to figure out where his horse was—it was part of the sport. "We take to technology very slowly," says one member of Keeneland’s staff, on condition of anonymity.

Keeneland’s barn area also is unlike any in America. While other tracks require credentials to gain entrance, Keeneland remains open to the public. Visitors might recognize the track from the 2003 movie Seabiscuit; most of the racing scenes were shot at Keeneland, where the aesthetic remains much as it was in 1936, when the track opened.

This does not mean Keeneland is not big business. Financially speaking, it is the world’s biggest Thoroughbred auction house, with more than a half billion dollars in sales annually. Keeneland’s 1985 auction set a world record when Seattle Dancer, a son of Nijinski II, sold for $13.1 million. The sales draw a colorful lot—emirs, ranchers, movie stars, titled Englishmen, billionaire tycoons—and generate stratospheric prices, yet the auctions are open: Anyone can watch the auctions from the pavilion lobby or walk through the barns while the horses are being shown.

Ultimately, though, the big money in horse racing is in sex, so no visit to Keeneland is complete without a stop at one of the track’s neighboring stud farms. One of the most prominent is Lane’s End—10 times named the leading stud farm in North America—whose immaculate redbrick stable houses some of the world’s most famous sires. Here, for example, you will find Curlin, two-time Horse of the Year and—with $10.5 million in earnings—North America’s richest racehorse, as well as A.P. Indy, son of Seattle Slew and grandson of Secretariat, who commands a stud fee of $150,000. Indy has put on weight in recent years, however, and he looks more like a warhorse than a racehorse. "We don’t use artificial insemination; it’s all natural," says an employee at the farm. "Putting male and female together generally takes five men in a padded stall to corral the couple together just right."

Nevertheless, Indy—bless his equine soul—sometimes falls off.

Just as horse fanciers come from far and wide to see the stud farms, they and others also come to tour the Whiskey Trail, which wends through bourbon country to such legendary distilleries as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Woodford Reserve, and, of course, Maker’s Mark.

In 1840, T.W. Samuels—great-great-grandfather of current Maker’s Mark president Bill Samuels—built the family’s first full-scale distillery on its farm near the town of Samuels Depot, Ky. It was not the area’s first distillery, however. In fact, the water was so good for making whiskey that some three decades earlier there were already more than 2,000 distilleries along the banks of the Ohio River. One of the seasonal distillery workers was Thomas Lincoln, whose son Abraham proudly served bourbon at the several taverns he owned in New Salem, Ill., before he entered politics and eventually became the 16th U.S. president. With the arrival of the steamboat in 1811 and of regular service a year later on the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where bourbon was the favorite drink, distilling became an industry in its own right.

Bourbon country was largely spared the ravages of the Civil War, but it was the Confederate Army’s surrender in 1865 that brought the Great Rebellion to the Samuels’ doorstep. Despite the fact that General Lee had handed over his sword in April, a small band of fighters called Quantrill’s Raiders continued to terrorize Union soldiers and their supporters in the Kentucky backwoods. When the group’s leader, William Quantrill, was fatally shot, his followers, including brothers Frank and Jesse James, fled to Samuels Depot—a refuge they chose purposely because T.W. Samuels was not only the local sheriff, but also cousin to the James boys’ stepfather. T.W. persuaded the boys to lay down their arms, and thus the last surrender of the Civil War took place on the front porch of the family’s general store. Three years later, Frank and Jesse robbed the Southern Deposit Bank in nearby Russellville—the first of many financial institutions they would loot.

For T.W. and his fellow bourbon makers, a threat far greater than bandits was the gathering temperance movement. Even before the Civil War, the "dries" had pressured lawmakers in 13 states to ban the sale of alcohol, and in 1920 Prohibition became the law of the land. Not everyone complied all the time. T.W. and his friend (and fellow whiskey maker) Jim Beam spent at least one night in jail after being caught firing up their still to replenish their private stock.

When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, American whiskey makers rushed to market with goods that were made in haste and under-aged. "The bourbon everyone was selling in the middle of the last century was mostly rotgut," says Samuels. "In fact, Dad rarely touched the stuff. But he always felt it would be possible to make a superior product."

In 1953, Bill Samuels Sr. set out to do just that. His approach was ingenious: Instead of tinkering with various blends of bourbon, he sampled the grains that determined their taste by munching on different breads. Eventually he decided to replace rye, the traditional flavoring grain in bourbon, with mellower winter wheat.

The new flavor deserved a new name and a new look, Samuels decided, and so his artistic wife concocted both. She devised a logo containing an "S" for Samuels, a star for Star Hill Farm, where her husband was born, and a Roman "IV" to represent his status as a fourth-generation professional distiller. The bourbon would come to be known by this symbol, or "maker’s mark."

"Mom also collected bottles of antique Cognacs that were sealed in wax," says Samuels. "So she and Dad decided to apply the same technique to bourbon, thereby assuring each bottle its own unique swirl, like a maker’s seal, around its neck." (Today the family’s product enjoys such a cult following that bottles dipped in waxes of different colors may be valued at thousands of dollars.)

Six years after putting the first batch of his new bourbon in barrels, Bill Sr. shared it with friends at the 1959 Kentucky Derby. All agreed it was full, rich, and sweet, without any of the bitter overtones associated with rye-flavored bourbons.

Over the next 50 years, Maker’s Mark would change the image and habits of whiskey drinkers everywhere, giving rise to a new class of premium bourbons bearing names such as A.H. Hirsch, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Blanton’s, Booker Noe, Elmer T. Lee, Evan Williams, Hancock’s Reserve, Knob Creek, and Rock Hill Farms. Yet all along, Maker’s Mark remained a company with one product. "We’ve had great success with our core product, and we didn’t want to extend the line just for the sake of having something new," says Samuels. "After all, a lot of people think Maker’s Mark is just about perfect.

On the other hand," he adds, "who says you can’t improve on perfection?"

The recent news from Loretto, site of the Maker’s Mark Distillery, has delighted ambassadors and aficionados everywhere: Bill Samuels Jr., like his father 57 years before him, has created a whole new class of bourbon. "I felt Mom and Dad looking over my shoulder," he says, "so we didn’t set out to make a better bourbon, but we did want to make a different bourbon."

This time, strips of wood, rather than freshly baked breads, made the difference. "We added strips of seared French oak to barrels of Maker’s Mark for several months of extra aging," says Smith, the master distiller. "The result was slightly more alcohol, slightly less sweetness and vanilla, and a bit more earthy cinnamon."

The 94-proof spirit, which at press time was scheduled for release in July at a price of about $35, tastes less like a sibling to Maker’s Mark and more like a cousin, according to Samuels. Coming up with the name was simple: "We called it 46," he says, "because the wood came from lot number 46."

Samuels says the company asked its ambassadors and select connoisseurs around the country to comment on Maker’s 46. "But all we ever heard back from them was ‘Send more whiskey.’ "

Maker’s Mark, www.makersmark.com

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Photo by Richard Carleton Hacker