Country Distillers v. Samuels – the rise of Maker’s Mark.

Maker’s Mark declared September 14, 2013 “Ambassador Day.”  The Ambassador program, of course, is the ingenious rewards/loyalty program of Maker’s Mark.  (Disclaimer:  I’ve been an Ambassador since 2005.)  Was September 14 just a date picked out of thin air, or did it have some significance?
Knowing Maker’s Mark, I figured that it meant something, so I did a little investigating, and I found a perfect topic for my “bourbon as told through the rich history of American lawsuits…” bit.
Maker’s Mark touts its history with its trademark “SIV” to honor four generations of distillers in the Samuels family (or is it six?  Everyone also knows about the unique dripping red wax seal, and many people are aware of the relatively recent litigation against a tequila brand that infringed on that trademark.  But long before there were any disputes about wax seals, Bill Samuels, Sr. was embroiled in litigation when he broke from former corporate ownership and sought to make a new beginning in the 1940’s.
Country Distillers Products, Inc. v. Samuels, Inc., 217 S.W.2d 216 (Ky. 1948) tells the background story of what became the current-day Maker’s Mark.  The Court began by noting that the Samuels family had been making whiskey for over one-hundred years at the time of this lawsuit, but had not incorporated their distillery until 1933, when they formed T. W. Samuels Distillery (named after the original Samuels distiller) with other corporate investors.  The name was changed to Country Distillers Products, Inc. in January 1942, and the distillery continued to produce the “T.W. Samuels” and “Old Jordan” brands.
About 1½ years after the official name change, on July 30, 1943, T. William Samuels (a/k/a, Bill, Sr., the great-grandson of T. W. Samuels) resigned and sold all of his shares.  But Bill, Sr. apparently didn’t plan on retiring; he wanted to make a better bourbon.  A mere six weeks later – on September 14, 1943 – he incorporated Old Samuels Distillery, Inc. and T. W. Samuels, Inc.  This is where Maker’s Mark was eventually born, and that explains why Maker’s Mark picked the 70th anniversary as its “Ambassador Day.”
Bill, Sr. still had a fight on his hands, though.  Country Distillers sued Old Samuels Distillery, Inc. and T. W. Samuels, Inc. to prevent them from using the Samuels name.  The trial court sided with Country Distillers and ruled that while Bill, Sr. could use the name “T. W. Samuels, Inc.” as a company name, the Samuels name could not be emphasized on labels, nor could he use “Samuels” or “Old Samuels” as brand names, and that he also had to include the phrase “not connected with Country Distillers, Inc.” on each label.
In a 1948 decision, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky (at the time, the highest court in the Commonwealth) mostly agreed with the lower court.  While the court recognized that so long as a person does not create confusion in the market, he always has the “undeniable right” to use his own name in his own business, in this case the name “T. W. Samuels” did create confusion.  So the court affirmed the restriction on the font size of using the corporate names on labels and against using “T. W. Samuels” as a brand name, and the disclaimer that it was “not connected with Country Distillers.”  On the other hand, Country Distillers had never used the name “Old Samuels,” so Bill, Sr. was permitted to use that brand name.
In any event, during these years Bill, Sr. was still perfecting his new recipe that used wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain.  As legend has it, he even ceremonially burned the old Samuels recipe.  And it wasn’t until 1953 that Bill, Sr. bought the distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, then known as Star Hill Farm (and formerly known as the Burks Mill & Distillery, where distilling started in 1805), so that he could start distilling and aging.  So Bill, Sr. had some time, but the Country Distillers lawsuit might explain why his wife came up with a new name we now all know and love. (  Whatever the reason for Bill, Sr.’s split from Country Distillers, we should all be thankful that he struck out on his own and that he persevered despite the lawsuit.

One Comment on “Country Distillers v. Samuels – the rise of Maker’s Mark.

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