Nearly 25 years ago, Victoria MacRae-Samuels knew nothing about bourbon, but a chance encounter with a distilling legend changed that. She’s now the only woman vice president in the industry.
Not only has Victoria MacRae-Samuels spent the last 24 years working for bourbon manufacturers, she is one of only a few women working in that industry at all. As a matter of fact, she is the only woman who serves as a vice president of operations for a bourbon distillery, the title she currently holds at Maker’s Mark. Today, she visits Richmond.
“I didn’t set out to be a pioneer,” said MacRae-Samuels from her office in Loretto, Kentucky by phone. “I just got into the industry and really appreciated it.”
In 1989, she was living in San Francisco. When friends from Kentucky asked if she would like to accompany them on a visit to the Bluegrass State, she agreed. As it so happened, a friend of a friend knew Booker Noe, who was Master Distiller of Jim Beam for over 40 years (Noe died in 2004). During that trip, MacRae-Samuels found herself in Noe’s home.
In those days, MacRae-Samuels knew nothing about bourbon. It’s grains, yeast, or fermentation process. But she knew science, having graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a BS in Chemistry and Biology. In the late 1990s, she said “there weren’t a lot of chemists” working within distilleries. She helped change that.
Impressed by the scientific knowledge and curiosity of this bourbon newcomer, Noe put forward a proposition: You should be a chemist and work for me. She left San Francisco and moved to Kentucky.
For the next several years, MacRae-Samuels worked in the Jim Beam R&D department, developing and supervising analytical testing. “I found the process so fascinating,” she said of distilling. “The more I learned, the more curious I was.”
In 1992, she hung up her lab coat and became a supervisor–then control manager–at two Beam distilleries. In 2008, MacRae-Samuels moved to Maker’s Mark (which is owned by Beam Inc.).
“My area of responsibility is the faculty in Loretto,” which stretches over 600 acres in the rolling hills of Kentucky. She oversees a team of 100 that produce barrels made nearly to order. “We don’t do a lot of pre-production,” she said. There are no stockpiles waiting around to be shipped, she said. This commitment to freshness adds to the quality of each barrel.
That quality has made Maker’s Mark “one of the fastest growing brands” among bourbon’s recent popularity surge. While one of few women involved in the bourbon industry, MacRae-Samuels acknowledges the importance of another woman that came before her: Marjorie Samuels.
Wife of Maker’s Mark founder Bill Samuels (no relation to Victoria), Marjorie not only coined the name of the bourbon, but also designed its iconic label–both of which have remained unchanged through the years. It’s these bits of history that MacRae-Samuels often speaks of when she travels across the world engaging Maker’s Mark customers.
Today, MacRae-Samuels will appear at Morton’s The Steakhouse to meet fans, speak about the bourbon-making process, and demonstrate Maker’s trademark wax dipping. “I’ve never visited Richmond before,” she said. A local friend is planning to show her around during her off-time, and she’s looking forward to it. “I would really like to get a nice overview of the city.”
Victoria MacRae-Samuels will appear at Morton’s The Steakhouse on Monday, October 22nd from 6:00 – 7:30 PM. Tickets are $49 and include Maker’s 46 paired with hors d’oeuvres. Call 804.648.1662 for more information.