Pioneering a path: Jane Bowie leads the charge of innovation at Maker’s Mark

Jane Bowie at Maker's Mark
Jane Bowie has worked at Maker's Mark for 14 years. | Courtesy of Maker's Mark

In 2007, Jane Bowie was crashing on her mother’s couch while back in Kentucky for a friend’s wedding. She had just finished a teaching job in Japan and was ready for her next adventure, which she thought might take her to New Zealand. As fate would have it, though, life rerouted her to the small town of Loretto, Ky., population 737.

Bowie’s mom had cut out a help-wanted ad from the newspaper and suggested she apply. The Maker’s Mark Distillery was looking for an event coordinator. To appease her parent, Bowie applied for the job in her own special way. The first line of her cover letter read: “I don’t want this job, but …” Bowie proceeded to outline her dream job for the company, which would send her all over the world sharing the good news about Maker’s Mark bourbon. 

Of course this unique approach caught the eye of Maker’s Bill Samuels Jr. and his son Rob Samuels, and they quickly hired Bowie as a global brand ambassador. Since then, Bowie has worked her way up the ladder in — not surprisingly — some of the most unconventional ways, and now she serves as the master of maturation and director of innovation for the company.

Bowie quickly realized her passion for the liquid side of the operation and is credited for launching Maker’s successful Private Select program and also the latest Wood Finishing Series.

We caught up with Bowie recently to hear more about her intriguing bourbon journey.

The Bourbon Review: What brought you to bourbon? 

Jane Bowie: I drank Jim Beam and Old Crow in college. And then I went to Japan and taught English right out of college for two years, and I was making money and I was a Kentucky girl, right? The bourbon bars in Japan were insane! So suddenly I had money, and I was like, “I’m from Kentucky! I better show these people how to drink bourbon!” And that was where I got my bourbon education. 

What brought me into the industry was I applied to a job at Maker’s to get my mom off my back. I was sleeping on her couch in between countries and was planning to go be a rafting guide in New Zealand, as you do. I didn’t have any money. My mom cut out a newspaper advertisement for an event coordinator job at Maker’s. I’m like, “God, alright. I’ll apply to get her off my back.” 

I wrote my cover letter and the opening line was, “I don’t want this job.” It’s so typical Bill and Rob (Samuels), right? They were like, “We love your application!” Are you kidding me? I pitched them a job in my letter, and whatever you want to call it — fortuitous, serendipitous, whatever the word is — Rob was actually quietly looking to find someone from Kentucky to come work for him and send them out. And that was almost verbatim the job I pitched in my letter.

It was just really random, but my mom, every day she is like, “I am responsible for your happiness and success.”

TBR: How did you get from global ambassador to director of innovation?

Jane Bowie
Jane Bowie is now master of maturation and director of innovation. | Courtesy of Maker’s Mark

JB: It’s interesting, because I think advocacy is so important in our business, and this brand, in particular, was built that way. Bill Samuels Jr. was the original advocate for the industry, along with Jimmy (Russell) and Booker (Noe) — so it was really part of the DNA of this brand. I think the thing is, there is really no natural progression in that (ambassador) role. You’ve got the Bernie Lubbers (Heaven Hill) and Adam Harris (Beam Suntory) that are so amazing at it. They become a face for that brand. 

And that just wasn’t … when I thought about what I was doing, I knew I wasn’t equipped to do that forever. I don’t have the stamina! You think about that role, and some people go into sales, some go into marketing, and my passion was the liquid. So I kind of just started learning the business. 

I had a list of jobs I didn’t want in the beginning. So I just started nagging a lot and being around and raising my hand for things. My first project down here was when we launched Cask Strength. I put a plan together on how we would go to market. And then when Rob decided we wanted to create a single-barrel program, I just raised my hand and was like, “Let me go think about this.” 

We didn’t have an innovation department; we didn’t even have an innovation team at that point. It was just Rob and Bill and myself and Greg Davis and Victoria (MacRae-Samuels) at the time, and so Private Select was the first thing. And from there, innovation became my side hustle for a few years. Finally about two years ago, they agreed it was a full-time job, so I stepped away from everything else and I’ve been doing just liquid blending innovation and formulation. 

We have a department now! There’s Beth Buckner, who’s our innovation manager. I stole her from quality control. She’s more of the technical science side, because I don’t have that background, although I’m learning it every day. So I guess I’m more sensory, she’s science, so together we do all the work. I’m the first person at Maker’s to have this director of innovation title, and, I’m not popular for it down here, I can tell you that! We have multi-generational employees that, when you do one thing for 50 years, they’re like, “Why are we doing this?”

TBR: What’s the biggest challenge of your job? 

JB: For me, it’s knowing when to stop. I think how we innovate is based on our founders. I think different distilleries or different brands have different innovation philosophies. Some people are like, “Let’s go try stuff.” And others are more, “Here’s our destination.” We’re much more in that last camp of, “Here’s our taste vision. How do we get there?” 

I think we try to really define that in the beginning. You imagine and dream of what the whiskey tastes like in your brain, and then when you go to work with the agriculture and you go to do the stuff and you’re working in it, for me personally, there’s never a moment where I’m like, “We nailed it! We’re done!” I never, ever get there. So for me, it’s knowing when to stop.

I’m always the one saying, “There’s more stones to turn over,” so that’s why you have a team, right? And we have checks and balances. It’s not just me in a vacuum. The three of us (Bowie, Buckner and Master Distiller Denny Potter) define that taste vision and work toward it. Our preferences get thrown out the window, and it’s truly trying to be as objective as possible. We always laugh and say, “No one cares what you like, but here’s what we’re trying to hit.” 

TBR: We heard the latest Wood Finishing release, the FAE-01, might be your favorite so far? 

Maker's Mark FAE-01
FAE-01 was released in March 2021. | Courtesy

JB: I never have favorites, because of what I just said to you. You get in this head space of wanting it to be spicy or sweet or whatever, and that becomes the goal. You get so laser focused that it’s all you care about. They’re kind of like children. OK, they’re all grown up, so I’m going to move onto the next one. 

But this one hits my personal taste preferences. As cheesy as this sounds, it tastes like walking into our Warehouse A. It’s our oldest rick house, it’s been there since the 1880s, and there’s this dank kind of barnwood smell. You know that smell that’s like bourbon with wood and dampness and there’s tobacco and fruit notes in the air? This whiskey tastes like that smells.

That smell is such a strong memory, I love that smell. I love maturation, I love barrels, I love the warehouse — that’s my world. So for me, the fact that this whiskey tastes like that smell, it’s just … I don’t know. This one is special, and I know I shouldn’t say that. 

TBR: Any hints about what Maker’s Mark has up its sleaves for the coming year? 

JB: Beth and I spend about 50% of our time on agriculture with new liquids — exploring where flavor comes from through the actual ingredients, so the Wood Finishing Series really just came out of that work. You get bit by the bug of, “Oh my gosh! Look at this oak and look at the flavors it can create!”

How does a 200-year-old tree make my whiskey taste like dark chocolate? How is that happening? So much of our time, we study the ingredients, we study where flavor is coming from in the agriculture, so we’re working on whiskeys that celebrate the ingredients. 

The other 50% of our time, we spend studying the process. I think at the end of the day, bourbon is manufactured agriculture, right? So you have these two arms, you have these ingredients and you have the process, and all of these are levers to pull. So we spend the other 50% of our time studying these 70-year-old processes that were chosen by a sixth-generation distiller who inherited this. 

We’re trying to pressure test and look at, “Here’s what we do and why does it matter.” What are we learning here? From things as simple as the use of our roller mill to how we cook our grains to our yeast strain and our fermentation times and temperatures to our entry proof. We go into the barrel at 110, which is not as common anymore. Why does that matter? What is that doing from a flavor standpoint? So there will be whiskeys that are coming out of all of this study. But I’m not going to tell you what they are! (Laughs

TBR: Do you remember the first bourbon you ever tasted?

JB: I do! It was Wild Turkey 101, and I still have such a special place in my heart for 101.

Dipping a bottle of Maker's Mark
Visitors to Maker’s Mark can still dip their own bottle at the gift shop. | Courtesy of Maker’s Mark

What’s your most prized bottle in your collection?

I went to Transy (Transylvania University in Lexington) and did a business major with a hospitality emphasis, which was a new program they were trying. I took the first-ever tourism class, and we came to Maker’s Mark and I dipped a bottle. It was in May of 2003. 

That was when the dipping station was under the stairs, and it was a one-stop shop visitor’s center. I remember that tour like it was yesterday. And I came away with two things: 1) They rotate barrels. I didn’t know what that meant but knew it was a big deal; and 2) There was a tasting panel that decided when the bourbon got bottled.

Those two things stuck with me, and I still have that bottle. There was nothing special about it, but that’s probably the one that’s most special to me. 

TBR: As a woman in the whiskey business, do you think you’re treated any differently? 

JB: I would say by the industry, absolutely not. I’ve never felt that. I think when I was doing the global work when I was 25 — first of all, so I was young and was probably a shit-show. But going to scotch-heavy markets, people didn’t really take me seriously, but that could have been the fact that I was female, that I was young, or that I have the personality that I have. 

That was probably the only time I felt like I was treated differently, but it served me well. It made me work harder and I made sure I knew my shit, because I don’t think people took me seriously. At these whiskey shows in London or Vienna, it was usually a bunch of old guys in kilts and me. 

TBR: What’s your advice for other women who might be interested in distilling career?  

JB: Vocalize what you want. That would be my advice to anybody. We’re such a passion industry that the hardest part sometimes is getting in. 

What worked for me, there’s 0% chance it works today. The industry was so different 14 years ago, so I don’t have great advice. I got in before the boom, I had no experience. I don’t know if that would happen today. 

It’s quite a welcoming industry. I remember when I was training, I went to Four Roses — this was before they had tours really — and Al Young (senior brand ambassador) was like, “I’ll show you around!” I spent a whole day with him. And he didn’t have to do that. I was the competition, right? And I have a million stories like that where people were just willing to teach me and answer questions and help, and I think our industry is like that. It’s a very friendly, open, welcoming and happy to share. 

Sara Havens
Sara Havens has covered the bourbon scene for more than 15 years as a Louisville-based writer and editor, and her work has appeared in various local, regional and national publications. Recently, Havens was one of 10 finalists in the World’s Top Whiskey Taster competition held by the Bardstown Bourbon Co., beating out more than 400 contenders to represent the Kentucky region. Known as The Bar Belle, she maintains her own website all about the bourbon industry and Louisville nightlife scene.