Driving Colonel Sanders: The Little-Known Link Between KFC and Maker’s Mark

In the summer of ’55, long before the cheeky new Darrell Hammond commercials and the catchy “finger lickin’” slogans, Colonel Harland Sanders was a relatively unknown retiree in Corbin, Ky., with a fried chicken recipe, some spices, and a dream.

And he was probably driving his wife crazy, according to Bill Samuels, Jr.

As the story goes, Samuels, Jr., was 16 and in possession of a newly issued driver’s license that June when he arrived home to find Sanders visiting with his parents, who had founded Maker’s Mark distillery the year before. It was during that serendipitous afternoon that Sanders offered Samuels, Jr., an enticing summer job. He became the first employee of what would become the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation — forever entwining the tasty relationship between bourbon and fried chicken.

“He had retired sometime in the spring and he stayed home for a few months, got a few social security checks and was driving [his wife] Claudia crazy at home,” Samuels, Jr., told Yahoo Food. “So he put together the idea of franchising this chicken that he invented … which was basically using a pressure-cooker to bring it into the fast food area. But he did it in an interesting way with herbs and spices.”

Thus began Samuels’ stint chauffeuring the Colonel from restaurant to restaurant — with a deep fryer in tow.

KFC recently launched a new website about Col. Sanders (Photo: Colonelsanders.com)

“He would make appointments to meet with the owners, sell them on the idea of serving his chicken, teach the kitchen how to use the spices, and be doing the bookkeeping in the passenger seat in between,” said Samuels, Jr., now 75. “I believe he received a nickel per chicken that each restaurant sold, and the arrangement was based on strictly a handshake. There was no paperwork that I recall.”

From what Samuels, Jr. observed, it was pretty hard to say no to the colonel.

“He was incredibly gracious and everybody liked him,” said Samuels, Jr. “I don’t remember him ever being turned down. Although, he could be pretty feisty if you hadn’t changed the oil in the pressure cooker on a return trip … he was a maniac for quality and a wonderful salesman.”

But with no business aspirations of his own at the time, Samuels, Jr. said he mainly enjoyed the gig for its ambience and adventure — which is a good thing, as he never collected a salary.

“He didn’t pay me anything!” recalled Samuels, Jr. with a laugh. “But I didn’t ask him for anything. He bought all of our meals and paid for an overnight trip we had. And, for me, I didn’t have to mow as many fields back on the farm. So it was an escape from drudgery. It brought a smile to my face.”

In the years since those storied road trips, Samuels, Jr., went on to become the president and CEO of his family’s business, presiding over Maker’s Mark for more than 35 years. He now sits as Chairman Emeritus.

Meanwhile, both KFC and Maker’s Mark have assumed legendary status as Kentucky food and drink brands, with their influence rippling through to artisanal trends in recent years.

From Hard Water in San Francisco to Seven Sows in Asheville, N.C., an increasing number of restaurants across the country now present fried chicken and whiskey as stylish culinary bedfellows.

“I think the sweetness of bourbon pairs perfectly with the salty, crispy chicken and the alcohol help cuts through the richness of the dish,” said Noah Rothbaum, spirits expert and author of The Art of American Whiskey.

Samuels, Jr. echoed that sentiment.

“Generally, fried chicken was always thought of as being from the South,” he said. “But with the Colonel’s notoriety, it now also has a Kentucky leaning, and certainly bourbon has its heritage here. So the pairing is natural. Although, bourbon goes with almost everything.”

As for the memory of his first job, it left a deep impression on Samuels, Jr.

“To this day, I’m in a KFC at least once every two weeks,” he said. “I just get a regular 4-piece chicken dinner. Every so often, I gotta get a dose of that stuff.”

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