In January, Maker’s Mark became the world’s largest distillery to earn B Corp certification — a significant milestone for the broader industry, as well as a sustainability benchmark for Kentucky’s thriving 'Bourbon Country.'
Like almost every other industry, the spirits business is reckoning with how to keep producing products while reducing its overall environmental footprint.
It could be argued that the entire industry had to innovate in a hurry following the close of most “on-premise” establishments early in the pandemic — restaurants, bars, etc — and that was only the start of a larger mindshift in making a business driven by archaic regulations ready for the consumer and climate demands of the 2020s.
“Our hope is that we can serve as a model for other distilleries across the state,” Kim Harmon — Maker’s Mark’s environmental, health, & safety manager — told Sustainable Brands™.
In January, Maker’s Mark became the world’s largest distillery to earn its B Corp certification — a significant milestone for the broader industry, as well as a sustainability benchmark for Kentucky’s thriving “Bourbon Country.” Maker’s earned the status through various ongoing initiatives including a distillery-wide zero-landfill initiative, and extensive solar installations across its warehouse footprint.
Harmon also noted that Maker’s established the world’s largest research repository for American white oak trees, which is the source wood for all bourbon barrels. The repository acts as a living laboratory of more than 300 unique families of white oak for scientists at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources to study the sustainability of the species for future generations. Data from this study will inform researchers about the longevity, disease resistance and vitality of American white oak.
Maker’s is owned by Beam Suntory, one of the world’s largest spirits conglomerates; it marks the second distillery in the company’s portfolio to achieve B Corp status (Sipsmith Gin was first, in June 2021).
“It’s a comprehensive measure of our actions at the distillery right now to contribute to a more sustainable society,” Harmon adds.
She hopes that the certification will spearhead further change in Bourbon Country, as well as across the industry — and she may not be wrong. A recent sustainability roundtable hosted by industry accelerator Distill Ventures highlighted efforts by spirits companies large and small — including the world’s largest, Diageo, which is also a minority investor in Distill Ventures.
Scope 3 footprint remains industry’s biggest challenge
During the talk, Diageo Sustainable Solutions lead John Cant noted that over half the carbon footprint of portfolio brand Johnnie Walker Black Label comes from the glass and the liquid within the glass — which the company has set out to address with the development of one of the industry’s first paper spirits bottles. That specific output is typically classified as Scope 3 emissions — the hardest to measure and cut.
“The glass industry needs to decarbonize,” he added.
Most of what Cant discussed related to Diageo’s 2030 targets and progress towards those goals, which tend to move slower at a company of its size.
Courtney McKee — CEO of Montana’s Headframe Spirits — was one of two representatives from the craft spirits side, highlighting some of the challenges much smaller producers face.
“There’s no real (environmental) guidance for smaller spirits brands and distilleries; and there’s a good, long way to go (to figure that out),” she said. She also noted particular challenges around not only becoming a B Corp at her business level, but maintaining the certification.
With liquor regulations driven by state mandates (which can vary widely) and the general challenges of being a smaller business, craft producers must often navigate environmental impact improvements on their own, with some being more aggressive than others.
In an interview following the roundtable, Distill Ventures North America Whiskey Portfolio Director Josh Wortman told Sustainable Brands that no matter the distillery size, real change needs to start behind the scenes.
“It's more process-oriented, rather than product-focused. This is a massive industry (emphasis on industry); and producers urgently need to make big changes at scale to have an impact,” he said. “But we are seeing, albeit on a smaller scale, innovation that both contributes to the environment and is also connected to the quality of the liquid. Trends in agriculture, for example — such as regenerative farming and [nurturing] biodiversity, led by curious and mission-driven founders with new ideas — are also extremely important and are resulting in some fascinating whiskies that the world has never seen before.”
Whisk(e)y as a driver for further change
Considering yearly whiskey sales volume in the US has grown by more than 20 million cases over the last decade, the category could serve as a major consumer link and catalyst for change.
Wortman describes two key reasons that the brown spirit could push momentum forward.
“One, whiskey being an aged product is predicated on there actually being a viable future for said whiskey, so producers must act now,” he says. “Two, the scale at which whiskey is produced and its reliance upon natural resources throughout the supply chain lends itself to implementing sustainable solutions at scale.”
With that in mind, Maker’s Mark is far ahead of other individual brands sitting within a major spirits portfolio. However, with Diageo’s vast array of goals — and competitors including Pernod Ricard and Bacardi also setting ambitious goals — brown spirits could be the differentiator to move the needle now.
“The industry has a way to go,” Wortman says, “and meaningful, measurable solutions are needed now — at all stages of the business.”