As we stand at the outset of a new decade, I believe that nearly every market is going to witness a seismic change in consumer behaviour. More and more consumers will make their buying decisions based on how environmentally friendly a product is. We have already seen this in significant areas of the food market.
For example, the increased consumption of almond milk is exposing bees to all kinds of diseases and many beekeepers are losing as many as a third of their bees each year. To help consumers to choose “bee friendly” products the Bee Better certification program was launched in 2017 and can already be found on brands such as Häagen-Dazs. Whilst I would like to think that Häagen-Dazs really cares about the humble bee, what I really bee-lieve is that it cares about the bottom-line and listening to its customers. I feel, however, that the drinks market has been a little slow in understanding the likely scale of change and how dominant a factor the environment will become in consumer choice this coming decade.
With so many spirits to choose from, and let’s be honest, often so little difference in price or taste between them; their environmental ‘credentials’ could increasingly become the determining factor in any buying decision. With that in mind, I decided to talk to a brand that has gained a reputation for leading the way on sustainability and interviewed Maker’s Mark Environmental Champion’ Jason Nally.
Maker’s Mark Distillery and sustainability
It is nice to see more and more distilleries making efforts to protect the environment. What does sustainability mean to you?
To me sustainability is a multi-disciplinary approach that through conservation, stewardship and innovation creates a business model that respectfully utilises resources for current needs while also paving the way for future generations to prosper as well.
Your title is Environmental Champion. What does that actually mean?
As far as my own role as Environmental Champion is concerned, I work with our environmental team to make sure we are operating all aspects of our property with sustainability in mind, and I quite literally champion the ideas from the team to make them a reality, whether they be related to the supervision of our lakes and fields or to potential efficiencies within the walls of our distillery or warehouses.
I also work as our environmental educator, bringing groups onto the property to show them and help them understand the natural resources that are most important to us.
How big is the environmental team?
The environmental team is currently a group of eleven, but we are growing. This past summer we even had two college-senior interns with us, who were brought on as summer staff. Beyond the core group, we also get help throughout the distillery from our tour staff, warehouse managers and guest relations managers who are interested in supporting various green initiatives.
Would you say water is the main focus of your job?
Everything we do at Maker’s Mark Distillery has a positive benefit for water, whether that’s direct management of the lakes or improving habitats for birds, bees and butterflies – ultimately, all of it leads to better water quality. All the water that we pull from our lake is improved by our land-management activities, and every drop of that water ends up in a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
Is flooding common in the area?
Flooding is a common issue, though not like you see in big flash-flooding events or around major rivers. To manage our own flooding, we’re constantly working to convert what used to be mowed fescue (grass) fields into a more diverse vegetation type that helps to slow the flow of water and mitigate risks. We are also managing our forests in a way that promotes plant diversity both vertically and horizontally, helping to increase groundwater infiltration.
Could you describe some of the other tasks you do at Maker’s Mark Distillery?
One of the biggest aspects of our environmental efforts is watershed management – ensuring the quantity of water we’re using from our own lakes is sustainable, and that the quality of that water is maintained.
We’re also creating better wildlife habitats here on our own campus by planting things like native grasses and wildflowers that help us to better manage our land holistically, minimising the impact of flash-flooding events and allowing every drop of water to slowly enter the limestone bedrock that feeds our lakes.
During the spring semester we collaborated with Dr John Lhotka and his forestry students from the University of Kentucky. The group conducted a forest inventory and analysis of our own forests at Star Hill Farm and helped develop a management strategy for the woods by identifying where white oak is growing and where it doesn’t seem to be regenerating. Projects like these make us better stewards of the land and provide demonstration areas for showcasing work that forest landowners can implement on their own properties.
Is your work only to monitor what happens outside the distillery (in nature) or do you consider other environmental factors such as energy, greenhouse gases or by-products?
Our environmental team works all throughout the distillery, and we convene regularly to make sure that all of our ideas are coming together and working in harmony. In addition to our activities around the lakes and our forests, we have folk that focus on environmental health and safety by implementing energy- and water-saving initiatives throughout the facility. It really is a team effort because large-scale environmental initiatives simply can’t happen overnight; they require us to create a culture over time.
What is the best part of your job?
As someone who was born and bred in Loretto, Kentucky, and who has an immense amount of pride for this town and for what Maker’s Mark means to our local economy, the best part of my job is being able to apply my lifelong interests in wildlife biology and our environment to a professional role that taps into my roots. Maker’s Mark is a brand that is immensely important to Central Kentucky, and it’s a privilege to being doing what I love with a company that feels like home.
Maker’s Mark Bourbon
Maker’s Mark is made using a mixture of red winter wheat (16%), locally grown corn (70%) and malted barley (14%). All of this comes from local, family-run farms within a hundred miles of the distillery. Maker’s Mark is unusual compared to many other distilleries as it has its own water source. The water is naturally filtered through limestone, which removes any unpleasant flavours, creating pure calcium- and magnesium-rich water ideal for drinking. Fermentation is done in old cypress tanks, and the liquid is then double distilled in copper stills.
The distillery uses new American oak casks and each barrel is kept outdoors for nine months before being charred for 40 seconds (number three char). The outdoor ‘seasoning’ helps to remove tannins from the wood, which would otherwise end up in the spirit itself. Once the barrels are filled, they are kept in the warehouse for a minimum of three summers. The hot weather will make the wood expand, allowing the spirit to extract plenty of flavour and colour. At times the barrels are rotated by hand.
Once the whisky has gained enough flavour, the barrels are moved to a cooler area to avoid maturing too fast. There is no specific time when the whisky is deemed ready, but maturation usually takes six to seven years. The Master Distiller and a special tasting panel will decide when the whisky has spent enough time in the barrel. The cask-strength bourbon is then filtered and taken down to 45% ABV before being bottled and hand-dipped in wax.
Have you noticed that Maker’s Mark Distillery spells whisky without an e?
Back in 1953, Bill Samuels Sr. wanted to create a smooth, easy-drinking whisky and came up with the Maker’s Mark recipe. He wanted to honour their Scottish-Irish heritage by calling it whisky unlike every other bourbon in the US.
The brand is taking great measures to protect its water sources and the land around the distillery. They are strongly invested in looking after the water source, making sure the quantities they are using are sustainable whilst maintaining quality. To achieve the best results, they have hired a full team to take care of all the environmental aspects of the distillery and distillery grounds.
They have two lakes to look after, one of which is simply being kept for the future so only one is used for distilling purposes. Their environmental team makes sure the bees, birds and butterflies are happy by planting native wildflowers and grass.
Maker’s Mark Distillery’s efforts to secure an ideal environment for future generations and wildlife whilst maintaining the quality of their product are impressive. I hope one day to visit the site to really see and experience each step of the process.
These days, making spirits goes beyond profits, and everyone should make sure they are looking after the environment by using energy-efficient wash and spirit stills, reducing carbon emissions and pollution and avoiding overusing their water sources or damaging nature by over-sourcing botanicals.
It is also down to us consumers to be mindful of these things when buying a bottle of spirits and supporting the brands that do make clear, conscious efforts in finding natural solutions to reduce and manage their environmental impact, from water to energy to pollution and more.
Sustainability is all about meeting the needs of the present without compromising or taking away from future generations. It is a harmony of economic, environmental and social aspects. Simply put, to be sustainable you must balance profit, planet and people.
In an ever increasing drinks market, with such a huge range of choice within the spirit category and where the differences in taste and price can be minute, how long will it be before the ‘environmental credentials’ of the business that makes the spirit is a key factor in the choice of the consumer?
Do you think of the environmental credibility of a particular drink before you buy it? Had that ever influenced your choice of gin or whisky? Would you be more likely to choose Makers Mark now because of what you’ve learned in this article?
*All photos are from the Maker’s Mark Distillery archives.
**This blog post is not sponsored by the brand. I am just genuinely interested in the topic.