The Kentucky Distillers’ Association and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival created the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001 to recognize individuals and organizations that have made a significant and transformational impact on Bourbon’s stature, growth and awareness. Since its inception, the group of winners has been legendary.
Candidates may be nominated each year by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, its member distilleries and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival from four categories: Industry, Journalism, Roll of Honor and Lifetime Achievement. Nominees are then sent to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Board of Directors for final selection.
Appropriately, the 2017 induction ceremony was held on the grounds of My Old Kentucky Home in Bardstown, The Bourbon Capital of the World or as this year’s festival poster points out, The Town that Bourbon Built.
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This year saw three new individuals join the ranks and one of the Halls original members granted the prestigious Parker Beam Lifetime Achievement Award.
“This year’s inductees are joined by the fact that they’re all leading figures behind the growing global renaissance of Kentucky Bourbon,” said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “Each, in their own way, has helped shape our current success.”
“Today, we honor their remarkable achievements that continue to drive our industry’s new Golden Age. Their world-class leadership, vision, dedication and integrity has forever transformed our signature spirit.”
“For that, we raise a glass in deserved tribute and heartfelt thanks.”
2017 Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Winners
This year’s inductees are:
- Chris Morris, Vice President & Master Distiller, Brown-Forman Corp.
- Bill Samuels, Jr., Chairman Emeritus of Maker’s Mark Distillery (Lifetime Achievement)
- The late Harry J. Shapira, Executive Vice President, Heaven Hill Brands
- Jerry Summers, Director of Community Relations, Beam Suntory
Our tale today focuses on the most colorful character on the list, Bill Samuels, Jr. winner of the prestigious Parker Beam Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was named for sixth-generation distiller, Parker Beam of Heaven Hill Distillery. Beam was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010 and passed away earlier this year at the age of 75.
Bill Samuels, Jr. Accepts Lifetime Achievement Award
“Having grown up around some of the true legends in the industry, this award is pretty heady stuff for me,” Samuels said. “Any ‘lifetime achievement,’ in my case, is largely built on the opportunity I had to learn from the best in the business.”
Just like a visit to a distillery, it’s all about the stories and no awards banquet would be complete without stories. When it comes to Bill Samuels there are lots of colorful stories to tell. Here are a few of those stories as told by Eric Gregory and Nick Nicholson, Retired President and CEO, Keeneland Association. Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Ky played a pivotal role in the history of Maker’s Mark having placed the first order for a case of Maker’s Mark Bourbon back in 1958. Keeneland and Maker’s Mark have worked together to make commemorative bottles over the years for many great causes. Some even have whiskey in them. Watch the video to get the full story.
Samuels’ marketing genius and innovative leadership helped propel Maker’s Mark and its signature red wax to one of the world’s most recognized brands. He also is a lifelong champion of education, health care and business in the Commonwealth as one of its greatest ambassadors.
Eric Gregory Shares His Favorite Bill Samuels, Jr. Story
“I was in my second year as President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association in 2009 when the Governor and legislative leaders united to enact a sales tax on alcohol. No matter if it was already being collected on a wholesale tax but that’s a different story. Bill joined us every day for a week, as we walked the halls in Frankfort. We rallied in the capitol rotunda, we poured bourbon on the capitol steps in protest and finally it came time to testify before the powerful Senate appropriations and revenue committee.
All week long I had been asking Bill if he needed any help with his talking points. ‘Nope, nope, I’m good. Good to go.’ I kept saying Bill are your sure? You know, I’ll be glad to help you out. ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ve got it all under control.’
I sit next to Bill at the table, but we went before the committee meeting at the end of a very long week and the room was packed with people and very tense. The legislators were not in a good mood. We were not backing down from the fight we put on all week.
As I pulled out my type written prepared remarks, Bill reached into his coat pocket pulled slipped out this wrinkled sheet of paper with a few scribbled notes, tugged at my arm and said, ‘I can’t read my own writing, what does that say?’
My heart sunk and I melted literally into the chair. This was going to be an absolute disaster. The committee chairman recognized Bill to speak and he looked and stared down the legislatures and said, ‘You know, ya’ll have done some stupid stuff before but this is the dumbest damn idea you’ve ever had.’
The room erupted in laughter just like it did then the ice was broken so to speak and he came within one vote of beating back the tax that day. I learned very quickly that it’s good to be Bill Samuels and he was not only a bourbon legend he was our secret weapon and there are some things that only Bill Samuels can get away with and he did that day!”
Selling 10,000 Empty Bottles of Maker’s Mark Bourbon in 1 Hour
Nick Nicholson, Former President and CEO of the Keeneland Foundation shares his favorite Bill Samuels, Jr stories. He kind of sums it up with this Bill Samuels quote, “Everything you try works, you’re just not trying enough things.”
“I always said that Bill could take one set of facts, add them up and come to a different conclusion than anybody I ever met. We were at a cocktail party reception years ago. Tubby Smith was the (basketball) coach at the University of Kentucky. Tubby and Bill start talking. Tubby says, ‘I want to start a foundation, I want to help Kentucky’s children, I want to do some good things.’ Well, that was music to Bill’s ears and he starts telling how he can do a foundation, and we can help you, the more Bill talked, we’ll do a special bottle for you to kick off the foundation. Then he calls me over and I did what became a big part of my career whenever Bill would go like this I would nod and just go yes. Bill would say, ‘Here’s what we want to do, we’re going to do a Keeneland bottle, we are going to dedicate it to Tubby Smith.’ And I’m going yes, yes, count me in.
Next morning Bill goes in the office and says, ‘I got a great idea last night, here’s what we are going to do. I need a few thousand bottles; we are going to make a dedication to Tubby Smith, a special bottle. We are going to do it part Keeneland, Keeneland is going to be a part of it, we’ll launch it.’
And of course the operations staff looked at him like he was crazy. You don’t have a few thousand bottles that you can sell next month, you don’t have them. ‘What do you mean we don’t have them?’ Every bottle of Maker’s Mark that we have for the next year already has signed contracts. ‘Who signed those contracts?’ You did. ‘Oh, well I guess we better keep them.’
So at that point in time, I would have and every other normal business man in the world would have called Tubby and said, ‘Tubby, there’s a problem, I kind of over committed we can’t do it this year but we’ll do it next year. We’ll help your foundation get started. Not Bill. Bill came up with an idea. He said, ‘I may not have any whiskey but I have plenty of bottles.’ He creates a bottle, we were doing about 4,000 to 5,000 bottles a year at Keeneland. Bill says, ‘We can do this.’ He knew his customers so well and he understood that there’s a story here as much as there is a product. He calls me up and says, ‘Now Nick, you’re going to have to trust me on this one.’ I said, we are going to do what? And I said ok, we’ll do it. So we had a press conference we announce this. In between time he had already decided instead of doing 4,000 we were going to do 10,000. We had a press conference, they go on sale and within an hour all 10,000 bottles sold out, not a drop of whiskey in them. There were no taxes to be paid so Tubby Smith got more money than he would have had in the foundation. True story!
Hall of Fame Winners Receive Copper Stills
KDA President Gregory presented each inductee with an engraved miniature copper still before an invitation-only crowd of 160 whiskey luminaries. Each inductee’s name also was added to a Hall of Fame display at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown.
“This is one of the most special days in our landmark history where legends officially become lore,” Gregory said. “It’s with great honor that we welcome these four gentlemen into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and celebrate their extraordinary impact on our industry.”