Maker’s Mark’s red wax seals are so iconic that if you visit the distillery, you’ll find a massive line of people paying to dip their own bottle of Maker’s into a vat of bubbling wax — a unique keepsake from Bourbon Country, to be sure.
In 1985, Maker’s trademarked the red wax seal, much to the consternation of the rest of the industry, which also tends to enjoy dipping bottles in wax from time to time. In 1997 Jose Cuervo released its own red-wax-dipped tequila, and the lawsuits started flying. Now, an appeals court has upheld Maker’s sole claim to the look — litigation has been going on for the last nine years — giving the Bourbon-maker sole claim to the sealant system.
In a 19-page opinion affirming that decision, Judge Boyce F. Martin waxed poetic about the history of Kentucky’s most famous distilled spirit. Martin, who noted at oral arguments in December that “Maker’s Mark is not cheap,” displayed a detailed knowledge of the history and manufacture of bourbon, writing that “corn-based mash and aging in charred new oak barrels impart a distinct mellow flavor and caramel color.”
“Distillers compete intensely on flavor, but also through branding and marketing; the history of bourbon, in particular, illustrates why strong branding and differentiation is important in the distilled spirits market,” Martin wrote.
He even cited the bourbon brands preferred by 19th century statesmen such as Ulysses S. Grant and Daniel Webster.
The Samuels family, which created Maker’s Mark in 1958, trademarked the distinctive seal in 1985. The seal, perfected by Margie Samuels in the family’s deep fryer, doesn’t serve any practical purpose in keeping the bottle closed.
The trademark held by Maker’s Mark describes the seal as a “wax-like coating covering the cap of the bottle and trickling down the neck of the bottle in a freeform irregular pattern.” The trademark application doesn’t refer to a specific color, but Maker’s Mark told the court it has sought to enforce the trademark only as it applied to the red dripping wax seal.