A leader in the American bourbon market – with its family traditions and time-tested practices and traditions – Maker’s Mark is known for its smooth whiskey and distinctive hand-dipped bottles. But the Loretto, Kentucky company, founded in 1953, is also building a reputation as an innovator with forward-thinking projects and collaborations designed for social and environmental wellness.
Rob Samuels, Eighth Generation Whiskey Maker & Managing Director of the Maker’s Mark Distillery, is the latest in a line of family members who have led the company over the years and established its place as a stalwart of Bourbon Country, home of the barrels of aged whiskey made with corn. The grandson of Maker’s Mark founders and others on the team are establishing practices at the company and with its business partners to strengthen its strong foundation and chart a path to a sustainable future.
This includes adopting a stakeholder approach to Maker’s Mark acreage by pursuing a pesticide-free orchard and collaborating with research experts in regenerative farming and animal husbandry practices; obtaining LEED certification for its basement and commercial building; and providing career advancement opportunities and comprehensive benefits for its employees.
These and other initiatives are part of the culture of Maker’s Mark, which became part of the Certified B Corporation community earlier this year. It is now the largest distillery in the world and the first in Kentucky’s Bourbon Country to achieve B Corp certification, which recognizes companies that are assessed for their social and environmental impact. According to Samuels, B Corp certification also reflects the way of doing business he learned from his grandparents, Bill and Margie Samuels, and father, Bill Samuels Jr.
Expanding with purpose and a commitment to craft
Bill and Margie Samuels chose the Maker’s Mark site for the water source when they purchased the property in 1952 for $25,000. It’s off the beaten track, says Rob Samuels, but less than 20 miles from Bardstown, Kentucky, a town of about 13,000 known as the Bourbon capital of Kentucky. Now the over 1,000-acre estate includes a nature reserve and water reserve, as well as the original distillery, which is still in operation and a National Historic Landmark. Its natural resources set Maker’s Mark apart from other bourbons, Samuels says. “When you talk to really passionate whiskey enthusiasts, informed whiskey consumers, almost all of them think of whiskey as a production product, when essentially it is an agricultural product. The taste all comes from nature.”
But it took time to build an appreciation for that flavor, as well as the company’s financial strength and production. Premium bourbon didn’t have a huge market in the 1950s, Samuels says, until a 1981 article changed that. “The Wall Street Journal said, ‘Maker’s Mark is a model of purposeful inefficiency,’ which is exactly the way we think about everything,” he says. “The goal here was never to become the biggest. The goal was never to be the most efficient. But you had a craftsman and his wife with a very clear vision for what they wanted to create and an unwavering commitment.”
Since the early 1980s, Maker’s Mark has seen strong average annual volume and value growth. In addition to strong financial performance, Samuels says he is most proud of the way the company treats its team and prioritizes a healthy workplace culture. “If you were to talk to the people who dip bottles by hand, the people who spin barrels, our salaried team members, they’d be able to say who Maker’s Mark is. They can explain to you why we do what we do,” he says. “It’s about treating the team members really well, purposefully expanding to ensure quality over time – which is very difficult in the whiskey business – and giving back to society.”
By building connections with its community and within the hospitality industry, Maker’s Mark pursues a goal beyond the bottom line. “Since its inception, this brand has found it important to give back and be active in the community and play a big role in giving back to society,” he says. “Our entire team is committed to this vision, to really live these values, even if it’s uncomfortable. It is never the easy way.”
Set an example and create a regenerative supply chain
Opting for B Corp certification is another way Maker’s Mark takes on challenges rather than choosing the easier path. Samuels and other Maker’s Mark leaders have found that rigorous third-party screening through the B Impact Assessment can help them build on their strengths and encourage other companies to consider their social and environmental impacts.
“What I’m so proud of is that we were B Corp before we knew there was a B Corp. We qualified to be a B Corp based on the way we were already operating,” says Samuels. “They have helped us understand that we can use the power of our brand to really encourage our supply chain to live these values as if they were the Maker’s Mark. Because in the end they are.”
That may mean using regenerative farming practices at Maker’s Mark to show its suppliers – local corn and wheat farmers – how they lead to competitive yields and greater flavor. It’s part of the company’s perspective to innovate for long-term growth rather than aiming for immediate, but short-lived, gains, Samuels says.
“Companies and brands that play the infinite game – giving back to society, engaging with the community, treating your team members very, very well, quality, purposefully innovating, having this infinite mindset – is how great brands are built,” he say. “The reason our team has embraced B Corp and this value system so much is because we are playing the never-ending game.”
On the estate known as Star Hill Farm, Maker’s Mark continues to innovate to conserve the natural resources used to make its whiskey. These include a distillery-wide zero landfill initiative; an on-site recycling program open to community members; and the implementation of a solar panel to power the Maker’s Mark warehouse complex. It’s all designed to celebrate agriculture’s role in its signature product and encourage other growers and producers to adopt eco-friendly practices, Samuels says.
“We want to prove that taste is in large part created by more sustainable farming practices. Farm-to-table chefs will tell you that their taste can taste the difference, but on an organic level it has never been proven,” he says. Does it look like if we can actually prove that these more sustainable farming practices not only minimize environmental impact, but also help us get more flavor? Because they go together.”
Maker’s Mark has done this as a subsidiary of Suntory, a family-owned Japanese company that bought the company in 2014. “They have an infinite mindset and they are a related partner,” he says. “They have a lot of companies. But their heart is with whiskey.”
With a century in business, Suntory is a good fit for Maker’s Mark, says Samuels. “If they were talking here today about what they are most proud of, they wouldn’t be talking about the P&L. They wouldn’t talk about economic success or value creation,” he says. “They would talk about Suntory and the family legacy,” which includes a commitment to community and public health.