As I stared at the buffalo head mounted above the warm crackling fireplace, I thought to myself, “why am I here?” ‘Here’ was the Historic Botherum, the incredulous Lexington home owned, renovated, and decorated by famed gardener, landscaper to the stars, and the quintessential Southern gentleman, Jon Carloftis. This was the beginning of a press trip sponsored by Maker’s Mark.
My thoughts were quickly interrupted when I was handed a mint julep. After all, this was Kentucky in springtime, and juleps are in season. The refreshing cocktail and some small bites came courtesy of the inviting Ann Evans, former executive director of the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion.
We were given the tour of the house, but it wasn’t until we explored his extravagant basement bar and enjoyed a pour or two of bourbon that I realized two things. First, Mr. Carloftis has an eye for design. The decor of his home is really something to behold. My wife, who was also on the trip, described the home as ‘southern masculine whimsy’. The man is clearly talented. Second, he loves his Maker’s Mark. In addition to dozens of Maker’s bottles displayed around the house, liquor closet, and basement bar, every one of his decanters held the famous wheated bourbon. Carloftis designed the landscaping at the distillery including the meandering pathways, something of which he is extremely proud. Trees at the distillery were also trimmed to provide a clear line of sight for visitors. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long to see this for myself.
The next day was the main event – the visit to Maker’s Mark. The hour long trip from Lexington featured long winding roads, plenty of silos, and countless bathtub Marys. Upon arrival, the pastoral beauty of the distillery grounds I’d long heard about quickly came into focus. This is one picturesque distillery. Hell, even Master Distiller Denny Potter told me how gorgeous the distillery looked just a few days prior at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival. The dark brown buildings with their Maker’s Mark signature wax red shutters stood out against the surrounding Kentucky greenery. It seemed right out of a painting. And the keeper of that little slice of whisky heaven, Maker’s Mark COO and grandson of the brand’s founders, Rob Samuels, Jr., was the perfect person to walk us around. I doubt anyone is more knowledgeable about the brand. Like Carloftis, Samuels is extremely proud of the work being done at the distillery. After all, it’s in his blood. Whisky-making in the Samuels family goes back many generations.
The tour of the grounds was amazing. It is a pilgrimage every bourbon fan should experience. The word “handmade” appears on every label of Maker’s Mark. There is a certain charm in the quaintness of the distillery that lives up to that description. From the small stillhouse and wooden fermenters to the fact that every label is still printed by hand using a letterpress. The wax dipping is also done by hand instead of by machine. Make no mistake – this is no big, automated factory. It’s a “model of purposeful inefficiency,” as Mrs. Samuels put it.
One clear violation of that phrase is the new cavern carved into a limestone shelf that allows the distillery to create Maker’s 46 and Maker’s Mark Private Select year round instead of only in the winter. When Bill Samuels, Jr. created Maker’s 46 years ago, he discovered it could only be done in the winter. Otherwise the barrel-stave finished bourbon didn’t come out right. So, in an effort to efficiently make the expression year-round, Maker’s carved a massive chunk into a nearby limestone shelf. It houses Maker’s 46 barrels, Private Select barrels, and a tasting room.
But what struck me as most interesting was what Maker’s Mark informed us of as we shared a dram of their whisky at the edge of their solely controlled, limestone-filtered water source. The distillery’s Environmental Champion, Jason Nally, preached the importance of sustainability. A native of the area, Nally used to dirtbike in the backwoods surrounding Star Hill Farms as a kid. Now he studies just about every aspect of that same natural space for the distillery. For Nally, understanding and working towards a future that breeds sustainability is key not only for the future of distilling, but of a much larger picture – one of a cleaner planet. It was an impassioned plea from someone knowledgeable who clearly cares.
From a distilling standpoint, Nally wants to make sure the lake is clean to ensure that pristine water source will always be available and that oak growth in the forested area nearby flourishes. By the way, all this work being done does not harm local wildlife. In fact, all the area animals and insects are being studied as well.
This environmental stop along the tour wasn’t just for show. This year, Maker’s Mark has committed to removing 75,000 pounds of trash from the world’s oceans and waterways. It’s bigger than the standard ‘giving back to the community’ line we often read about. While that is certainly applauded, what Maker’s is doing seems bigger. Another way we’ve seen change in a non-obtrusive manner came by way of using paper straws in cocktails instead of plastic ones. Every julep we were served on this trip featured a paper straw or reusable silver straw.
It was impressive to hear of Maker’s Mark’s efforts. They’ve come up with the hashtag #CocktailsForCleanups. Use it every time you post a photo of a Maker’s mint julep or any other cocktail to bring a little awareness to their efforts. Know that in a microcosmic kind of way, it can at the very least help spark a conversation, which can be as refreshing as that ice cold, minty delight known as a julep.
Thanks to Maker’s Mark team and the EVINS team for the trip. Though my travel expenses were covered, neither group suggested nor held any editorial control over this post. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.