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.


A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.

Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.