Building strong connections with people by listening

Roy Lee Wigginton- Distillery Events & Marketing Manager, Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto, KY

Article | 05 October 2021
The shared sense of pride in producing a quality product and working as a team are critical to the success of this global brand that is known by its signature red wax top. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I never really truly understood it, but my dad always said, ‘If you found something you love doing, it wouldn’t feel like work,’” says Maker’s Mark distillery events and marketing manager, Roy Lee Wigginton.

“I was one of those who said I'm going to get as far away from Kentucky when I grow up as I can! I went to a small liberal arts college here in Kentucky, I studied abroad, and after I graduated moved to Charlotte and worked there. And then I started to feel that pull to come back home. I found out that you could work in bourbon and get paid for it, so I applied and came in for an interview,” he nostalgically recalls.

Raising one of the snifters off the display table prepared for the next set of tourists, Roy Lee swirls the iconic caramel coloured bourbon, raises it to his eye level and examines the “legs” that form on the sides of the glass as the drink settles down. He takes a whiff with his eyes closed, inhales the aroma through his nostrils, and slowly exhales and nods with pride.

Over the last 13 years working his way up in the company, Austin Spalding is now the Mash Master. This is the first step in preparing the unique mash bill which ensures that the product is always of a consistent taste and quality. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
“To me,” he says letting out a satisfactory sigh, “Maker’s Mark has always been an icon, not just for the state of Kentucky, but personally it was what my dad and grandparents drank, and it was what I would have a sip of here and there when I could- when I was of legal age of course and could afford it,” he laughs.

Regarding some of the skills Wigginton needs to be effective in his role, he names problem solving, innovation and creativity. He describes his job as exciting and unpredictable as no one day is ever really the same.

“My role in particular is kind of whatever happens that day and whatever comes down the pipeline. It doesn’t fit in the normal day to day of a tour coming through and talking about the process. I try to wear a lot of hats and figure things out on the fly,” he laughs. “I have always been someone who could never sit and do the same thing all day every day.”

In keeping with hand-crafted tradition at Makers’ Mark, Stephanie works a 1935 printing press to print the unique labels for each bottle the distillery produces. The label contains a very small symbol that gives a hint to the lineage of this global brand. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Building and maintaining relationships according to Roy Lee is the most integral skill for all employees at the distillery, something he says goes back to the founding stages of the brand.

With passion and enthusiasm in his facial expressions and gestures, he stresses, “If you truly distil down, no pun intended, to the heart and soul of Maker’s it has always been about relationships. It’s the relationship our founder started with people he trusted to help guide that taste vision, the farmers, the first employees, and as we have grown, it’s the relationships with our customers, bartenders, industry partners and tourists. We have to be able to engage with them, hear their stories, and build connections.”

Upon a visit to the Maker’s Mark Distillery, a designated National Historic Landmark, tourists can embark on a journey through history, tradition, and bourbon. The distillery’s bourbon making process has remained the same since 1953 when it was first purchased and can be witnessed from start to finish.

The process of mashing the grains, fermenting them in a yeast mixture in tanks made of cypress wood, the double distillation process through copper stills, the charring, barrelling, label printing and cutting on a hand operated printing press, and finally the hand dipping of the final bottle in 400-degree red wax, a Maker’s Mark signature, can all be experienced first-hand.

To be able to reach the final quality product, Roy Lee explains how a combination of teamwork and pride are essential. “Everyone at the distillery plays their part and their proud of it. They’re proud of what they do to serve the ultimate goal of getting that quality handmade sipping style bourbon out the door and into somebody’s glass,” he emphasizes.

Visitors are treated exhibits like this one featuring hand-blown glass artwork in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors by late artist Stephen Rolfe Powell. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
“Everyone from myself to the folks who mill the grains, to those who are in the lab tasting and making sure the product truly is on point, play their part beautifully every time.”

As an employee Roy Lee states that the motivating factors, and special glue that binds the team to work exceptionally hard together involve a mixture of things including feeling safe and valued. “There is that point of pride when I travel and see a bottle at one of the best bars that came from right here, and I know the person who dipped it and put every bit of sweat equity into that bottle,” he shares with delight.

“It’s also the leadership team, who make an extra effort to put people and their safety at work first. And then it’s Rob Samuels. Given that his family started this business it’s very personal for him and he is very present, he knows your name, and engages with you.”

In talking about what work means to him, Wigginton says he gets “a good sense of his identity,” from his work which he describes as “a win for him.” He shares that one of the biggest and most valuable lessons he has learned in carrying out his job is “purposeful prioritization,” something he says he “struggled with especially in school.”

His hope for future generations including his nieces and nephews is that they feel valued as he does and “dignified when they come into work and dignified when they go home.”

Looking over at the new group of tourists that have just arrived to begin their tour, Roy Lee smiles and reiterates his dad’s words, “I hope they can find something that they truly love getting up to do every day, whatever that may be because you spend a lot of time at work.”