The CommUNITY Batch

Chef Edward Lee. Photo by Jolea Brown.

Maker’s Mark creates a special bourbon with all proceeds going to The LEE Initiative


By Sarah Levitch


Expanding upon the success of the Restaurant Relief and Reboot program, Maker’s Mark and the LEE Initiative have joined forces again to create a liquid reflective of the people. The LEE Initiative, originally founded for the Women Chefs Program, encountered tremendous growth and influence over the past few months as its Relief and Reboot program supports members of the hospitality industry who have struggled in the face of COVID-19. Now, with relief centers in 19 cities and aiding the reboot of around 55 farms and 75 restaurants throughout 11 cities, their next venture aspires to fund the next class of women chefs and, if necessary, more relief for the hospitality industry.

Now encompassing Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, the Women Chefs Program provides young, aspiring women chefs an opportunity to learn and be mentored by women who have risen from line cook to chef and owner.

Lindsey Ofcacek, co-founder and managing director of the LEE Initiative, explained how they pay all of their mentees through their mentorship. Ofcacek said, “Anytime they’re away from their restaurant, we pay their wages so they can expand their education without worrying. At the end of every class, they cook a five-course dinner at the James Beard House, which is an honor for a chef at any stage of their career, but especially for a young woman.”

Left to Right: Lindsey Ofcacek and Valerie Netherton. Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

Getting to also make their own Maker’s Mark Private Select bourbon and flavor of Jeni’s ice cream, the program offers rare opportunities for participants to make professional connections and explore their own creative culinary palette.

In true Kentucky fashion, Valerie Netherton, head of Maker’s Mark and the LEE Initiative partnership, decided that Maker’s Mark, rather than simply donating money, would create a new, limited bourbon to raise half a million dollars for the LEE Initiative. The mashbill stems from their Private Select Program, where retail and restaurant partners are invited to construct their own expression of Maker’s Mark, adding wood staves for the last nine weeks of the aging process in their limestone cellar.

Netherton explained, “We combined the recipes of 37 private select customers across the country, customers that, like Maker’s Mark, think giving back to the community is important.”

Rather than simply blending all the different liquids together, Jane Bowie, director of innovation, recommended a process called barrel vatting. Bowie explained, “Barrel vatting isn’t about getting more age or flavor, it’s about the barrel as the vessel for the whiskey to come together in a more cohesive way.” The process involved blending the 37 private select recipes in a tank, taking the wood-finishing staves out of the private select barrels and then putting the blended whiskey back in those barrels for five weeks in the limestone cellar.

A unique, unusual process yields a one-of-a-kind bourbon. Bowie noted the CommUNITY Batch is truly its own bourbon, describing, “The nose is in the fig, prune and raisin camp. The taste is really creamy, dark, rich and dry. There’s definitely some backbone and stability. For me, it has some semi-sweet chocolate and raisin flavor, with nice rickhouse characteristics. For people who like Maker’s 46, the darkness and sharpness of it, this is a step further, rounder and fuller.”

The process represents more than just a special way to blend bourbon. Netherton expounded upon the metaphor. “We’re calling this the CommUNITY Batch because it’s so symbolic of community,” said Netherton. “We have 37 different barrels and flavor profiles, and we brought them together. At first, they were a little awkward, but as they sat and rested in the barrel vatting process, the flavors enhanced and came together, symbolic of a community. People come together from different backgrounds with different ideas, and it’s a little awkward at first, but as they build and live in a community together, the hope is the community gets better.”

Available for purchase only on the LEE Initiative’s website, the CommUNITY Batch will yield 7,200 bottles, a truly limited bourbon, and 100% of the sale of the bottle will go to the LEE Initiative. Maker’s Mark and the LEE Initiative will host various events across the country where people can come pick up their bottles, most occurring on Giving Tuesday.

Ofcacek concluded, “The growth the LEE Initiative has had during COVID, and the way we’ve been able to support the industry, has been incredible. We’re so fortunate that we never had to feel helpless. When all of the restaurants shut down across the country, we were so grateful that we could help feed our community while keeping some line cooks employed. For us, it’s hope. We’re so grateful that through the sales of these bottles, we’ll be able to help in the next crisis.”

The CommUNITY Batch bourbon will be in a 750 ml bottle at cask strength, 107.7 proof. To buy a CommUNITY Batch bottle and for more information visit leeinitiative.org