How Maker’s Mark is innovating a sustainable future through design, agriculture and hospitality
By Sarah Levitch
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
The beloved red wax-sealed bottle we Kentuckians know so well carries not only a carefully crafted and flavorful bourbon whisky, but also a rich history of a family who pioneered the bourbon industry. Upon arrival at the distillery nestled in Loretto, Kentucky, Rob Samuels, grandson of founders Bill Sr. and Margie Samuels and current managing director, greeted our team and gave us a brief history lesson.
While sharing some quirky facts, like Maker’s Mark spells whisky without the ‘e’ in homage to their Scottish heritage and Keeneland was their first customer, Samuels emphasized the impact of his grandmother Margie Samuels, the first female to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and credited with inventing bourbon tourism. Wanting guests to feel like they were coming to her own home, Margie designed the distillery as a bourbon fairytale, weaving pops of red to reflect the wax seal and architecture inspired by Williamsburg. Margie also designed the distinct bottle, making Maker’s Mark the only bourbon brand made and designed by a female.
Pursuing the vision of innovation and flavor that his grandparents distilled into the brand, Rob Samuels leads the Maker’s Mark team into a future of sustainability. The Maker’s Mark experience will no longer just be a point and show distillery tour. Samuels explained, “We’re going to start taking visitors into nature because people that love bourbon don’t think of it as an agricultural product. The whisky we make comes from nature, and the farm experience is putting customers at the center of nature’s influence. Sustainability is so important to the future generation of whisky drinkers. We’re pioneering whisky and achieving new flavors that have yet to be discovered.”
Located on the 1,000 acres of Star Hill Farm, the Maker’s Mark team is cultivating their fields, as well as continuing to source all of their water from the lakes on site. With Rob Samuels as our hospitable guide, we got a sneak peek into their tremendous efforts to construct a sustainable structure for generations to come, meeting a few of the creative leaders along the way.
We began at the heart of it all, the distillery, adorned with a newly designed garden and campus by Kentucky native and distinguished landscape designer Jon Carloftis. Working with Margie Samuels’ already established design, Carloftis and his team found great inspiration in the bottle, incorporating red, honeycomb and burgundy flowers and plants throughout the campus.
A natural flow of trees and walkways guides you through the distillery with beautiful ease. I later spoke with Carloftis about his approach. He said, “The first thing I do is ask, how can I make this better? If you design something the right way, you don’t need to have signs.”
Before the problem-solving skills of Carloftis came in, there was nowhere for the visitors to gather during tours, and trees concealed the buildings from afar. Carlofits and his team constructed cobblestone circles and limbed up the trees, also working with Maker’s Mark Project Director Rick Ogburn, “to figure out the most efficient way to get down the hill to the distillery while still having romance and beauty to it.”
Along the thoughtfully designed paths where we walked, ending up at Star Hill Provisions, was a sneak peek of the lunch to come. Adjacent to the restaurant rests ‘Lithostill’ — from the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone” and the Latin word origins of “still” meaning “drip” — was a sculpture by Kentucky artist Matt Weir. Described by Weir as, “an abstract sculpture work conceived from the geophysical concepts and elements of the distillation process,” the piece consists of 80,000 pounds of carved limestone with sculpted pieces of copper and stainless steel produced by Vendome Copper and Brass Works, Inc. Similar to Carloftis, Weir found great inspiration in the Maker’s Mark bottle and distillery. Weir said, “The materials, shapes and processes reflect the greater hydrological system and Maker’s signature branding…designed with the consideration of the modern term ‘distill’ and its Latin origins ‘destillare,’ referring to individual drips as the slow means of the distillation process. The title of the work is a direct reference to the word ‘destillare’ and the mass of stone which makes up the body of the sculpture form.”
This is not the only place one may find themselves face to face with a great slab of limestone. Next to the restaurant is Maker’s Mark’s limestone cellar, where Maker’s Mark 46 and Private Selection are finished. Private Select Lead, Ryan Paris, elaborated on the cellar’s purpose saying, “The cellar is a LEED-certified facility designed to harness a cool geothermal climate that promotes flavor range expression within the taste vision our founders created over 65 years ago. The finishing staves we innovated within our program and distillery are crafted to highlight unique notes in our bourbon with a variety of range. In Private Select specifically, it gives our friends and family in the industry — bars, restaurants and retailers — the opportunity to create their own unique and subjective expression of Maker’s Mark in a single barrel format. This experience gives them the opportunity to showcase their favorite flavors within Maker’s Mark, just as Bill Samuels Jr. did with the Maker’s Mark 46 expression he created shortly before his retirement.”
Hoping into a solar-powered enclosed golf cart, Brian Mattingly, senior manager of Bottling Operations, and Jason Nally, Star Hill Farm environmental champion, drove us off into the rolling fields of Star Hill Farm. Our first stop was their new tasting room, still under construction, situated on the bank of one of their lakes. Working with architect Keith Summerour, Rob Samuels’ vision for the second Private Select tasting room is one out of a Kentucky countryside fantasy. Samuels said, “Many folks that travel here are coming from big cities, so we want to get them out into nature and have the water source as the backdrop as they design their perfect expression of Maker’s Mark.” A moment of silence fell over the group as a paddling of ducks grazed the lake, surely a scene Monet or Van Gogh would’ve painted if they ever came to the Kentucky countryside. Samuels couldn’t have picked a more serene or scenic spot to bring visitors into nature.
As we traversed the fields, Mattingly explained Maker’s Mark partnership with the University of Kentucky to construct a white oak repository. “Knowing that white oak is a natural resource which we deplete through the use of barrels, we want to ensure we have an endless supply of white oak lumber, but we also want to improve its existing quality and protect the species from future insect or disease destruction,” said Mattingly. With Seth Debolt, professor of horticulture at UK, they plan to map the genome of the 400-year-old white oak tree on the peninsula of the lake and one day will be able to identify the flavor genes.
Mattingly also mentioned that, with Laura DeWald, tree improvement specialist at UK, starting in March 2021, “We’re going to plant representatives of all 300 variations found in the Eastern United States, so we’ll have the entire genetic diversity of the white oak species here in one location. For the next 100 years, a lot of research will be done to improve genetics through natural regeneration and selective planting.”
Passing by various open fields, Mattingly spoke of their pursuit of fresh flavor including planting several orchards, reserving 40 acres for cattle grazing, planting native grasses and potential for a truffle orchard. An already established vegetable garden provides Star Hill Provisions, Maker’s Mark’s restaurant, with fresh produce for a constantly evolving menu. Any excess produce is donated to the LEE Initiative, created by Chef Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek, for their Restaurant Workers Relief Program and the David McAtee Community Kitchen.
This pursuit of flavor carries over to their specialty, bourbon, wheat being a key ingredient. Mattingly explained their efforts to develop wheat crops saying, “We realized that in the late 1940s, wheat production went from 400+ regional varieties across the nation, down to less than a dozen high-yielding varieties which now represents all the wheat diversity in America. The commercial agricultural era traded wheat’s flavor for higher yields. The varieties which Bill Samuels Sr. initially used are no longer available. For the last three years, we’ve been growing about 25 new as well as heirloom varieties in partnership with the University of Kentucky and then picking one or two of those to harvest on the property the following year. We hope to add those with improved flavor into the mash bill of future whiskys. We’re also going to explore unique summer cover crops that will build up the quality of the soil, giving us better-tasting wheat. Healthy soil contributes more to flavor than most people realize.”
Returning to the main campus, we ventured into the innovation lab, which resembles a quaint farmhouse. Expert sniffer Jane Bowie, director of Private Select and Heritage and Diplomat Programs, works to push the flavor boundaries of specialty batches as well as maintain the integrity of the original recipe. Bowie described their process, “Our approach to innovation is grounded in what the Samuels did in the beginning. They started with a specific taste vision, so we start very focused on what we want to achieve.”
With about 20 or 30 wheat samples spread out on their table, Bowie expanded upon Maker’s Mark’s analysis of wheat varieties. “Today the market is very yield driven, so our big question is has flavor been lost along the way?” said Bowie. “If we’re a bourbon that uses 16% wheat in our mash bill, we want to understand the quality and how it’s grown. Ideally, it’s marrying function and form. We want to figure out how to grow it where we get more flavor and take care of the environment so that our grandkids still have the land, ingredients and agriculture to support what we’re doing.”
Master Distiller Denny Potter expanded on how this continual experimentation emerges from an attempt to better comprehend the DNA of the classic Maker’s. “What we’re doing with Star Hill Farm is trying to understand where flavor comes from,” said Potter. “We’re working with wheat in particular, learning how different varieties can impact flavor. We recognize that we can come up with things that are new and different but are still tied to the legacy. It’s really born out of what we started with in the 50s. For example, Maker’s 46 is built off of the classic Maker’s but with different wood finishing.”
I prepared my palette for the last part of our tour at Maker’s Mark: Star Hill Provisions. All the talk of pushing flavor boundaries set my expectations high, which Head Chef Newman Miller and Education Manager Amanda Humphrey blew past and into a sky of yumminess. Carrying the values of fresh ingredients and flavor profiles over into the cuisine, each handcrafted cocktail and dish explodes in your mouth, a fireworks display of all that Maker’s Mark pursues. My personal favorite was the custom vegetarian slider, finishing with the Kentucky Pick-Me-Up, a delicate blend of Maker’s Mark 46 and Sunergos cold brew coffee.
Through delicious food came insightful conversation, as Samuels reflected, “One of the aspects that our founders instilled into this place and the brand is having a distillery that stands for more than just a glass of whisky we can be proud of.” Alongside Samuels sat Alex Bowie, director of Hospitality and Brand Education, who added the perfect cherry on top. Bowie said, “If I’m a consumer, I’m investing time to drive here. What will we do that makes it worth their time? What can we do so that when you get here, you stay here? What can we do here that truly allows you to experience everything about bourbon in Kentucky? The future for us lives beyond the distillery tour. That’s where Star Hill Farm plays in. We have a farm, 1,000 acres of land that we can showcase and the lake, the reason we are here in the first place. We want to take you out and show why this area is so important to what we do. We’re trying to give people true experiences that are beyond a point and show distillery tour. What is it that we are going to show you at Maker’s Mark that you can’t see somewhere else?”
With gratitude and a full belly, we made our way back to the parking lot, noticing a tour stopped at the cobblestone circle. As we drove up the hill and the deep brown colored barn faded in the rearview, I felt the same as I would leaving my grandmother’s. I felt an inexplicable satiation, with twinkles of comfort and joy, yet an overarching new sense of hope. Situated on a foundation of innovation and hospitality, Maker’s Mark moves into the future with a clear intention to construct a sustainable farm and distillery, as well as craft a truly personal experience that brings you into the hidden crevices of the Kentucky countryside.
Maker’s Mark Distillery
3350 Burks Spring Rd.
Loretto, KY 40037