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.

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Patriarchy Stress Disorder is A Real Thing and this Psychologist Is Helping Women Overcome It

For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.

As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.

Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.

What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein

This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.

Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.

While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.

Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.

In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.

"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."