The first female VP of Operations at Maker's Mark on the secret to her success: "You just keep going."
whiskey barrel
Credit: Courtesy of Maker's Mark

Paving the way for other women doesn’t scare Victoria MacRae-Samuels one bit. In fact, the chemist-turned-vice-president-of-operations-for-Maker's-Mark doesn't seem to scare at all.

Take her school years. In the '80s—way before the movement to encourage women to pursue STEM degrees—MacRae-Samuels was learning quantum theory. "The dean of the program was rather tickled that there were a couple of us ‘girls’ there, as he called us," she recalls now, “because it helped his numbers—but he didn’t really expect us to finish."

Fast forward a few years, to 1989, and her introduction to the bourbon industry. MacRae-Samuels, then a systems analyst based in San Francisco, was seated at a dinner table across from Booker Noe—the grandson of Jim Beam and the company's then-master distiller. And, as MacRae-Samuels tells it, by the end of the meal, Noe asked MacRae-Samuels to come on board as a research chemist. "He [Noe] wanted to learn more about what was happening in the barrel," MacRae-Samuels says. "And over dinner, he convinced me I needed to move to Kentucky and work for him in research and development." So, she did.

While MacRae-Samuels was content for two years to run tests on whiskey maturation—in an attempt to learn more about the barrel aging process, and what creates whiskey's varied colors and flavors—her interests began to shift. As MacRae-Samuels explains, "the best part about testing the products was going into the distillery and collecting the samples. Even though I had to rely on the team to collect the samples [from the tanks and barrels], I would always go down myself too. The process itself fascinated me, because it seemed so controlled—but at the same time, not controlled, you know? A true science and art."

So MacRae-Samuels asked for a new job—a job that would allow her to work inside the distilleries, in the plants, in the middle of the production itself. "Their first response was no," she says now. But she persisted, and her higher-ups proposed a compromise: would she be willing to work as a relief distillery supervisor, working two second shifts, two third shifts, and a day shift—alternating between two distilleries located some 10 miles apart?

To the casual observer, it might sound as if they were trying to make this new job offer so unappealing MacRae-Samuels wouldn't be tempted to take it. "They said, before you say 'yes,' here’s what you need to know: there’s never been a woman distillery supervisor in the Jim Beam organization, so they are not going to be used to you," she recalls. Then they added, "plus you’re not originally from Kentucky—and once you take that job, you really can’t go back to corporate." MacRae-Samuels took the job. And stayed in it for five years.

In the years that followed, MacRae-Samuels worked as a processing supervisor and later, as a processing manager, before moving to Maker's Mark to take an operations manager job.

Then, MacRae-Samuels found herself paving the way for women, again. She took the vice president of operations position—the first time a woman has held that title in the whole of the bourbon industry. She's held that title since 2010, and hasn't looked back.

MacRae-Samuels oversees a staff of 174 people. She's responsible for everything from the quality of the incoming grain to maturation, processing, and bottling. She tests the bourbon for quality, to make sure "we always stay true to [our founder's] palate," MacRae-Samuels explains. She makes sure the packaging is up to par.

MacRae-Samuels was doing this immense job in 2013, when she was pursuing an MBA—when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "My diagnosis threw me and my family for a loop," MacRae-Samuels says. "My first reaction was, now? This is terribly inconvenient."

That's right: MacRae-Samuels was diagnosed with breast cancer and her first thought was something like, this is really going to put a cramp in my work style. (Remember what we said earlier, about MacRae-Samuels not scaring?) So it should come as no surprise that not only did MacRae-Samuels come back to work after treatment, but she completed her MBA, too.

How? "Unless you have actually heard those words [a cancer diagnosis] before yourself, I don’t think you can really understand how it goes to your core and just—it just hits you, it hits you really, really hard—and it blows you to bits, and then you have to reassemble yourself," MacRae-Samuels describes. "And in reassembling myself, I just kept on going."

She continues, "for me, not moving forward is not an option. While very different, it [the diagnosis] is very similar in a lot of ways to being the first woman distillery supervisor—because they just really didn’t accept me in the beginning—of being in physical chemistry grad school, because they don’t really accept you. But what I tried to do was not make a fuss about it and not notice it so much. Oh, I noticed it, of course, but you just keep going."

The secret to her success, then, MacRae-Samuels contends, is to her ability to always move forward in the pursuit of her passions. It's something, she says, anyone, anywhere can do.

"Find something you are passionate about or something you gain passion about as you learn more about it," MacRae-Samuels recommends. "I didn’t jump into bourbon because I was passionate about it, but it developed into a passion, into an interest, over time. It has to be something you feel that way about or can feel that way about—not something that bores you," she emphasizes. "Then never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop moving."