Maker’s Mark Distillery opens Samuels House to tourists



COX’S What do you do if you grow up in a family legendary for its hospitality, where stories of family ties to the Jesse James gang flow like bourbon? If you’re eighth-generation whiskey maker Rob Samuels of Maker’s Mark Distillery, well, you buy the 200-year-old family home and fling open the doors to bourbon tourists.

Last week I had the chance to step inside the 1820s manor near Bardstown for a sneak preview of The Samuels House, and it was a step into Kentucky’s illustrious bourbon history – which is exactly what Rob Samuels and his father, Bill Samuels, Jr., want.

This is “Night at the Museum,” bourbon edition, with the home as steeped in the Samuels Maker’s Mark legacy as a barrel stave is in whiskey. The Samuels House is a showcase of the family’s whiskey-making roots. And those roots run as deep as the majestic mature trees out front. 

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“My namesake Robert Samuels had first made whiskey for George Washington’s army,” Rob said during a sneak peek tour last week. “He brought a 60 gallon still as he moved south and settled in what would eventually become Kentucky on the land grant, so he settled in that area where the house was eventually built in 1784. His grandson John Samuels built the house in 1820.”

Now The Samuels House, located in Cox’s Creek, just 40 minutes away from the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, is offering an immersive, only-in-Kentucky experience with overnight lodging at the Federal-style manor home. Presiding over two acres of bluegrass perfection, complete with mature oak trees and horse pastures, the home melds its two-century history with luxury and 21st-century essentials in all the right places. 

But how this historic home, which slipped out of Samuels family in the 1950s, was transformed to a decadent destination steeped in bourbon lore and American history is a winding journey, just like the history of Maker’s Mark itself.

Parties, gangsters and good bourbon

The Samuels House was near two distilleries that the Samuels family had in the area, and played host to untold family gatherings, parties … and some gangster-laced Kentucky and U.S. history.

Bill Samuels loves to recount that history, so his son, Rob, grew up on the tales.

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“If you were at the distillery with my dad for half a day, he would spend an hour on this topic,” Rob said. 

But what’s the news bite version?

“TW Samuels, who is my fourth great grandfather,” Rob said, “his first cousin Reuben Samuels married Frank and Jesse James’ mother. So Reuben Samuels was Frank and Jesse James’s stepdad.” 

Wow.

“And then Wilson Samuels, who had lived in the house, in the 1800s two of his daughters actually married James gang members and they stayed for a number of months,” he went on. “In the third floor … they cut out an escape hatch where if the law was ever moving in on them, they could get out quickly through that third-floor escape hatch and then there’s a tree on both sides of the house, so they could slide down.”

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Are you having family history envy yet? Pour a drink, there’s more.

“Jesse James had never surrendered,” Rob said, “but Frank James, in September of 1865, they had orchestrated a surrender. It was organized by TW Samuels, who was the distillery owner but he was also the three-time sheriff of Nelson County. 

“The surrender took place in the front yard of the Samuels house,” Rob said. “He handed over the pistol and he was later pardoned.”

That pistol, Bill told me as he showed me around the property, may have been the final firearm surrendered in the Civil War.

And what do you think you’ll see when you walk into the foyer of the home? That very pistol, and the pardon.

The house is positively brimming with family heirlooms and memorabilia like that. Numerous historic photos line the walls, weaving the story of the Samuels family legacy. You’ll also see the deep fryer where Rob’s grandmother, Margie Samuels, experimented with dipping bottles into the now-iconic red wax; a photo of Bill Samuels belting out a tune at a party with Little Richard; dozens of bottles of whiskey representing points along their 150 years of distilling — including the very first bottle of Maker’s Mark off the production line.

From family home to bourbon tourism destination

Eventually, like other family farms, it changed hands when the next generation wasn’t interested in farming and the home was sold in the 1950s.

But the tales of that property and its importance to the brand that one day became Maker’s Mark never left.

It seems Rob took an inkling one day to learn more about the house after hearing so much about it during his childhood and driving past it so many times. He connected with the homeowners, who’d meticulously cared for the place, and went for a visit. They were really gracious, Rob said, and he was immediately captivated by the house.

“They swung open the door that led into that kitchen, and it almost knocked me out with that fireplace,” he said.

He shared his vision: open up to the home to travelers — bourbon enthusiasts, history buffs, folks coming to Kentucky in search of a deeper experience than a distillery tour.

They loved it, sold him the house, and he got to work. In a matter of months, working with Jeffrey James Design and rc3 architect + builder, and combing through family archives, they prepared The Samuels House for its next chapter. 

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Three suites and a number of beautifully designed indoor and outdoor spaces will accommodate up to eight people. As if sleeping surrounded by history isn’t enough, guests will have the chance to bring in Bill Samuels for stories and cocktails (based on availability, of course). 

Friends, I will tell you. People buy up unicorn bottles in a frenzy, pay outrageous prices on the secondary market, and camp out for a chance to nab a limited release. But the real priceless Kentucky bourbon experience in my book? Listening to stories from the legacy whiskey makers like the Samuels family, the Noes of Jim Beam, and the Russells of Wild Turkey.

For a bourbon lover with the cash to spend, it’d be worth the cost of admission (and yep, it’s steep, starting at $1,250 a night — but that is for the entire group) to stay at the house just to have the chance to hang with Bill. Donations for the experience will go to the Margie Samuels endowed scholarship for the Women of Color Entrepreneur Leadership Program at Bellarmine University.

Guests can also book chef Newman Miller, who was the chef-in-residence at Maker’s Mark, for a paired cocktail dinner. And, buckle in, serious bourbon lovers: Rob dropped this little tidbit when we chatted last week. 

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For the first time, Maker’s is also offering the chance for a private evening experience at the distillery.

Samuels House guests “can essentially have the Maker’s Mark distillery to themselves,” Rob said. “Your group of six or eight would be the only group on the property, all 100 acres … [have a] tasting overlooking the lake, and then a private meal in the restaurant.”

So basically a bourbon dream trip: sleep at The Samuels House, hang out and sip bourbon with Bill Samuels Jr., eat with chef Miller, and call the distillery your own for the night.

When people ask me as a Kentuckian if we consider ourselves part of the South, my answer is always that we claim those aspects of the South that suit us. And namely, that’s hospitality. It makes me proud as a Kentuckian and a bourbon lover to see one of the biggest names in the industry stepping up the offerings available to bourbon’s biggest fans.

I’ve long heard that we want to be “the next Napa,” and I’ve long wished we’d stop saying that. What we have is uniquely Kentucky, and we should be proud to celebrate that. Cheers to the Samuels family for sharing their legacy, and for showing just what Kentucky hospitality is about. 

Tell Dana! Send your restaurant “Dish” to Dana McMahan at thecjdish@gmail.com.

The Samuels House

WHAT: Premium lodging steeped in bourbon tradition and American history – Welcome to The Samuels House. Owned and operated by the founding family of Maker’s Mark Distillery, you’ll enjoy a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience an intimate piece of Kentucky bourbon history like an insider. Set amid two acres fitted with mature oak trees and surrounded by horse pastures, the traditional features of a 200-year-old Federal-style manor home combine with modern luxury. Surround yourself in the Samuels family history — and make a little of your own while you’re at it.

WHERE: The Samuels House, 160 South Saint Gregory Church Road, Cox’s Creek, Kentucky

MORE INFORMATION: Learn more at thesamuelshouse.com



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