Maker’s Mark has become the largest distillery in the world to achieve B Corp Certification, which recognises companies building more sustainable and inclusive economies, and The Shout sat down for a chat with Managing Director, Rob Samuels.

Samuels is the eighth generation of the Samuels family to be involved in producing whisky, with the family starting all the way back in Scotland in the late 1599s, before making rye whiskey in Pennsylvania for a century and first distilling in what would eventually become Kentucky in the late 1700s.

The current home of Maker’s Mark was purchased by Samuels’s grandparents in 1952 for $35,000, Samuels told The Shout: “Their ambition had nothing to do with creating a business, it was truly only ever about achieving the taste vision. My grandfather was a craftsman, he was not a commercial person or a marketer.

“To him what success was, was creating this more elevated, refined bourbon that he would be proud to share with his closest friends, many of whom were other distillers.”

While achieving the B Corp Certification might seem an almost impossible task for a distiller the size of Maker’s Mark, once you understand about the brand and its ethos it becomes clear how this was possible.

Samuels explained to The Shout: “We’re a single source of supply, which I think is unique for distilleries in Kentucky. This means every drop of whiskey that’s ever gone in the bottle of Maker’s Mark we made and every drop of whiskey that’s ever been made in our distillery has never been anywhere other than a bottle of Maker’s Mark. But it’s humbling to say we’ve come from craft distillery to global brand.”

“Our distillery sits on this 1300 acre working farm called Starr Hill Farm, and we have already begun to create what will be the largest American white oak repository anywhere in the world. We are planting upwards of 20,000 American white oak trees, and we are learning a lot about the compounds of oak that influence flavour, and also learning about building overall resilience into American white oak.”

He added: “You know, you hear farm-to-table chefs talk about regenerative farming, and a few months ago I was with one of the more prominent farm-to-table chefs in America, and we were talking about the influence of regenerative farming, sustainable farming practices on yield and flavour. And it’s interesting because it’s never been proven before, that regenerative farming influences flavour: and it was interesting because this chef, his name’s Dan Barber, he has a restaurant in New York called Blue Hill. When I said that he pointed to his palate and he said ‘Rob I taste the difference’, and I think he’s right. But from a biological or molecular standpoint, it’s never been proven.

“So we intend to prove it and imagine if you’re on Star Hill Farm, we can prove that regenerative farming practices allow you to push flavour boundaries and allow you to have a competitive yield. We take all of that information and share it with the world, and we can be a part of fundamentally changing how agriculture is grown in this country.”

That’s the kind of passion that we are dealing with here, and it comes through in so much of what Samuels talks about, he is clearly passionate about his family business, as you would be, but that passion for helping to make a difference outside his business and on a much larger scale, to help other businesses and the climate underpins a lot of what Samuels talks about.

B Corp is not solely about being sustainable and having a positive impact on the environment, having a positive impact on people is also a huge part of B Corp, and Samuels explained this side of things has always been at the heart of Makers Mark.

“This certification was really important, not just for me, but for our entire team. One of the legacies of our founders beyond very distinctive hand-made bourbon, was they instilled in the foundation of Maker’s Mark, a higher purpose: a brand and a distillery where the vectors point out, to the community, where you live higher purpose in everything you do. And it’s just become instinctual.

“So it’s doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing. Treating our team members really well because we treat them like they’re family, we treat them like we would want to be treated and we will we do that when we’re under pressure. And then acknowledging that ultimately the whiskey in the bottle this is not a manufacturing product. This is bourbon that comes from nature. Are we, as stewards, thinking long-term, doing everything we can to ensure the sustainability of nature for the next generation of whiskey drinkers?”

That mentality was shown during the pandemic when the Governor of Kentucky imposed lockdown and so to help the hospitality community, which often does not have a safety net Maker’s Mark joined forces with a local chef and transformed his restaurant into a relief centre for independent hospitality workers and their families. Within three weeks they had scaled that up to 22 cities and now over four million meals have been served to the independent hospitality community.

Samuels told The Shout: “Maker’s Mark qualified to be B Corp certified the way we were operating, we didn’t have to do anything different. Now there are opportunities to continue to improve, but it’s an important part, I think, of the legacy of our founders and the brand ultimately as we share more of Maker’s Mark all over the world.”

Maker’s Mark is currently the fastest growing bourbon in dollar value in Australia, and Samuels said one of the things he’s seeing is what has already happened in the US, which is “leading bartenders and customers are willing to explore beyond mainstream, for something a little more refined, special and authentic”.

He added: “I have a soft spot for Australia given the Aussie’s passion for bourbon. It’s my understanding that Aussies actually drink more bourbon per capita than Kentuckians, I’m not sure I believe that but it’s what I’ve been told.”

B Corp Certification is just one step Maker’s Mark is taking to ‘Make Your Mark. Leave No Trace’, as part of its long-term environmentally-focused mission which couples bold, regenerative actions with comprehensive efforts to leave nothing harmful behind.

For more on Maker’s Mark and Maker’s Mark 46, contact your local beam Suntory representative.

Andy Young

Andy joined Intermedia as Editor of The Shout in 2015, writing news on a daily basis and also writing features for National Liquor News. Now Managing Editor of both The Shout and Bars and Clubs.

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