Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Maker's Mark
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
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
— 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
including a distillery-wide zero-landfill initiative, and extensive solar
installations across its warehouse footprint.
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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
“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.
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
That specific output is typically classified as Scope 3
— 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
“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
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.”
Considering yearly whiskey sales volume in the US has grown by more than 20
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
“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
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
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.”
Published Apr 8, 2022 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Geoff is a freelance journalist and copywriter focused on making the world a better place through compelling copy. He covers everything from apparel to travel while helping brands worldwide craft their messaging. In addition to Sustainable Brands, he's currently a contributor at Penta, AskMen.com, Field Mag and many others. You can check out more of his work at geoffnudelman.com.