Making Her Mark: Maker's Mark VP on Disrupting The Bourbon Boy's Club


For drinkers of bourbon, the iconic blend of Maker's Mark is one consumers have known to remain the same until 2008. Its classic, red, wax-sealed bottle, beholding the family recipe was rooted in the legacy of the only bourbon the Samuels family produced since they began distilling 64 years ago. But in 2008, Bill Samuels, Jr. set out to shake things up, and the leading force by his side? Victoria MacRae-Samuels, the first female VP of Operations in the bourbon industry.

“They'd never had a supervisor who was a woman before," says MacRae-Samuels. “But nothing stopped my curiosity from growing in the business."

Twenty-nine years ago, Victoria MacRae-Samuels was on the path to becoming an undergraduate professor, having spent the majority of her studies in STEM. Yet, a quick trip to Kentucky and a dinner with Booker Noe (Jim Beam's grandson) quickly changed this outcome, as MacRae-Samuels was inspired to join the bourbon industry -- odds against her as both a woman and Kentucky transfer.

As she grew in the industry, starting as a research and development chemist at Jim Beam, to joining Maker's Mark as the director of operations and eventually the Vice President of Operations, MacRae-Samuels continued to prove herself in a predominantly male industry. Part of this growth included her first project as director of operations at Maker's Mark when she joined in 2008. MacRae Samuels worked side-by-side with the founders' son and current Chairman Emeritus, Bill Samuels, Jr., on creating the brand's “first-ever new bourbon" since its founding in 1953.

“Bill came in for a meeting that day and said something that was very strange to us," she remembers as the bourbon legacy asked his team if they should consider offering consumers a different product. “Maker's Mark was known for one product and one product only but that day Bill said perhaps we should put our heads together to come up with something to provide customers with a slightly different taste while still being true to Maker's Mark."

So for the next two years, MacRae Samuels facilitated this process as the team created and tasted over 100 barrels of new-age Maker's Mark. As she worked closely with Mr. Samuels, she felt the brand had come full circle as what materialized to become the Maker's icon was a product of Marge Samuels; she designed the original bottle still on the shelf today, along with its wax seal, and encouraged the first distillery tours. “She even came up with the name," says MacRae-Samuels, “She noticed the best pieces of pewter had marks on the bottom of them representing its maker and their marks."

In continuing the female legacy of the brand, we caught up with MacRae-Samuels to learn more about her role as a woman in the bourbon industry, what it means to be the first female VP of operations in bourbon and what exactly Maker's 46 profile is all about.

At first, you weren't welcomed into the distillery--as a woman and non-Kentucky native--how did you break down any pre-existing stigmas?

I don't think I actively tried to overcome anything; part of who I am is I just keep going. I come from a very strong matriarchal family. My mother raised me by herself in the 1950s and my grandmother is a very strong character as well. I don't know if strength is in my genes but I think it's something you can develop and you can create in yourself. I just kept going, I was interested and I was learning things and that excited me.

I found that one of the best ways to break down barriers with people who have trouble understanding your credibility--that's really what it is about--the way I could build that up was knowledge. They can't argue with what I know, even if I'm a woman in the industry.

MacRae-Samuels helped with everything from the design of the bottle, its wax seal, she came up with the name and encouraged the first distillery tours.

And how do you think this motivated you to work to where you are today?

I've been in the industry for 29 years, I've also raised two daughters. So, when I hire at Maker's, I'm often hiring people my daughters' age, or even younger.

There comes a point in everyone's life, and your career, where you think how you will leave your legacy. I think what moves me along in my career--was initially the drive, the perseverance to learn and grow myself professionally--but now, I want to reach out and engage in conversation to recognize where we all are, where we come from and how far we have to go. And, what part can I play in that?

What does the title of “first female VP of operations" in the bourbon industry mean to you?

My titles have always been a descriptor of what I do--I think in my byline, I'd rather have a descriptor of what I do because I don't think titles can tell you who you are. When the master distiller left, Bill offered me the job and a few months later, he said, 'You know you're the first woman to hold this role?' I thought, 'How could I have not noticed that?'

It was a little disappointing as that was in the 2000s. Up until then, whenever I reached these roadblocks, I thought in the future, I won't have that problem. So to realize this in 2010, it was humbling but also very concerning.

"Gender is a very obvious topic when we discuss certain careers, but it really is about who people are."

You mentioned how times were changing in the bourbon industry with the prevalence of individualism. How do you encourage individualism at Maker's Mark?

Gender is a very obvious topic when we discuss certain careers, but it really is about who people are. Even though I'm leading the team, I see myself working side-by-side with everyone. In the 180 team members we have, I recognize each of them, and what they bring to work every day. Yes, we have processes and standard ways of working and quality control, and sometimes it's formalized but there should always be an opportunity for people to bring something of themselves.

What exactly is different regarding the flavor profiling of Maker's 46 vs the original MM?

Maker's 46 is a bigger and bolder version of the original Maker's Mark. The expression takes fully matured Maker's Mark and utilizes a finishing process in which ten seared French oak staves are inserted in the barrel to yield deep flavors of vanilla, caramel, oak, and spice.

Can you speak to what it's meant to play such a huge role in developing Maker's 46 and how this relates back to the female-creativity that Marge Samuels originally lent the brand's first bourbon?

Throughout the development of Maker's 46, we learned much about the uniqueness of Maker's Mark. Marge was a true pioneer in the bourbon industry – her vision remains at the foundation of everything we produce. Similar to the Maker's Mark bottle design, the Maker's 46 bottle is a tribute to Marge's groundbreaking design with its signature red wax dip and SIV logo that Marge designed.

What's next for the brand? And what's next for you?

With the success of Maker's Mark Private Select, our unique private barrel program that allows retailers to make their own version of Maker's Mark, we're continuing to experiment with wood finishes. In March, I celebrated my 29th anniversary with our company, and I'm looking forward to what the future holds. It's such an exciting time to be in the bourbon business. The industry is booming with a new level of interest from consumers. My curiosity and penchant for learning inspire me to continue to grow just as it did when I first joined the bourbon industry.

3 Min Read

Tempted To Dial Your Ex: 5 Ways To Know Whether Or Not You Should Contact An Old Flame

Thinking of ringing up your ex during these uncertain times? Maybe you want an excuse to contact your ex, or maybe you genuinely feel the need to connect with someone on an emotional level. As a matchmaker and relationship expert, I was surprised at the start of the coronavirus quarantine when friends were telling me that they were contacting their exes! But as social distancing has grown to be more than a short-term situation, we must avoid seeking short-term solutions—and resist the urge to dial an ex.

It stands to reason that you would contact an ex for support. After all, who knows you and your fears better than an ex? This all translates into someone who you think can provide comfort and support. As a matchmaker, I already know that people can spark and ignite relationships virtually that can lead to offline love, but lonely singles didn't necessarily believe this or understand this initially, which drives them straight back to a familiar ex. You only need to tune into Love Is Blind to test this theory or look to Dina Lohan and her virtual boyfriend.

At the start of lockdown, singles were already feeling lonely. There were studies that said as much as 3 out of 4 people were lonely, and that was before lockdown. Singles were worried that dating someone was going to be off limits for a very long time. Now when you factor in a widespread pandemic and the psychological impact that hits when you have to be in isolation and can't see anyone but your takeout delivery person, we end up understanding this urge to contact an ex.

So, what should you do if you are tempted to ring up an old flame? How do you know if it's the wrong thing or the right thing to do in a time like this? Check out a few of my points before deciding on picking up that phone to text, much less call an ex.

Before You Dial The Ex...

First, you need to phone a friend! It's the person that got you through this breakup to begin with. Let them remind you of the good, the bad and the ugly before taking this first step and risk getting sucked back in.

What was the reason for your breakup? As I mentioned before, you could get sucked back in… but that might not be a bad thing. It depends; when you phoned that friend to remind you, did she remind you of good or bad things during the breakup? It's possible that you both just had to take jobs in different cities, and the breakup wasn't due to a problem in the relationship. Have these problems resolved if there were issues?

You want to come from a good place of reflection and not let bad habits make the choice for you.

Depending on the reason for the breakup, set your boundaries for how much contact beforehand. If there was abuse or toxic behaviors in the relationship, don't even go there. You can't afford to repeat this relationship again.

If you know you shouldn't be contacting this ex but feel lonely, set up a support system ahead of time. Set up activities or things to fall back on to resist the urge. Maybe you phone a different friend, join a virtual happy hour for singles, or binge watch Netflix. Anything else is acceptable, but don't phone that ex.

Write down your reasons for wanting to contact the ex. Ask yourself if this is worth the pain. Are you flea-bagging again, or is there a friendship to be had, which will provide you with genuine comfort? If it's the latter, it's okay to go there. If it's an excuse to go back together and make contact, don't.

Decide how far you are willing to take the relationship this time, without it being a rinse and repeat. If you broke up for reasons beyond your control, it's okay. If your ex was a serial cheater, phone a friend instead.

If there was abuse or toxic behaviors in the relationship, don't even go there. You can't afford to repeat this relationship again.

As life returns to a more normal state and you adjust to the new normal, we will slowly begin to notice more balance in our lives. You want to come from a good place of reflection and not let bad habits make the choice for you. Some do's and don'ts for this time would be:

  • Do: exercise ⁠— taking care of you is important during this time. It's self-care and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
  • Do: shower, brush your teeth, and get out of your sweats.
  • Don't: be a couch potato.
  • Don't: drink or eat excessively during this time. Again, remember to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  • Do: think positive thoughts everyday and write down the 3 things you are grateful for. Look at the impact of John Krasinksi's SGN. It's uplifting and when you feel good, you won't want to slide backwards.
  • Don't: contact a toxic ex. It's a backward move in a moment of uncertainty that could have a long term impact. Why continue flea bagging yourself?