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Maker's Mark's case for business conservation of nature

The bourbon company is investing in trees and other crop species to ensure the whiskey sector's viability for decades to come.

Red house in the woods

Maker's Mark's facility in Kentucky. Image by Emily Payne/GreenBiz.

Maker’s Mark produces every one of its 23.5 million bottles of bourbon per year — including hand-cut labels and hand-dipped wax seals — onsite in Loretto, Kentucky. But the Maker’s Mark distillery might look more like a research farm than an international liquor brand: Only 1 percent of its 1,400-acre property, Star Hill Farm, is devoted to distilling, aging, bottling and shipping bourbon.

"The whiskey in the glass is an agricultural product, and the whiskey comes from nature. Sustainable agriculture and flavor go together," said Rob Samuels, 8th-generation whiskey maker and COO of Maker’s Mark.

Maker’s Mark operates 1,100 acres of farmland that is cultivating 30 new varieties and breeds of grain. As visitors enter the tasting room, they pass an innovation garden, where Maker’s Mark works with Row 7 Seed Company to create and trial plant varietals for optimal flavor. And the company partnered with the University of Kentucky and Independent Stave Company, its longtime barrel producer, in 2019 to establish the White Oak Tree Improvement Repository. The project aims to find answers to critical problems facing the American white oak — and the bourbon industry at large.

While Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, rum and other spirits will age in used barrels, all bourbon is required by U.S. law to age in a new white oak charred barrel. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) reported that, in October 2021, the state had 10 million barrels of bourbon aging in distillery warehouses across the state — an all-time record.

The supply of mature American white oak trees, which most distillers use for their bourbon barrels, is well-established. Through its last assessment in 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classified the species as experiencing population decline but not threatened in the wild.

It will serve as a research forest for our industry and beyond for many, many decades. It's about the sustainability of our industry for the next generation of whiskey drinkers.

However, many in the bourbon industry are worried that there aren’t enough young trees successfully germinating to supply the next generation of distillers. According to a 2021 report by the White Oak Initiative — whose partners include KDA, international liquor company Sazerac and the parent company of Maker’s Mark, Beam Suntory — shifts in land management and ecological changes have increased the number of competing tree species within white oak forests. They’re shading out young oaks and preventing regeneration.

"Without intervention today, the American white oak population will begin to decline significantly within the next 10 to 15 years, with more extreme declines over the next several decades," the report states.

The White Oak Tree Improvement Repository project first mapped the species genome using DNA samples from the "Mother Tree," a 250-year-old white oak on Star Hill Farm. Researchers have planted about 3,900 white oak seedlings, and by spring 2023, they will plant 10,000 more. The research has involved forestry academics from nearly every state in the Eastern United States, the white oak’s growing range. Now, it’s the only complete inventory of all the known genetic diversity of white oak in the world, according to Maker’s Mark.

"It will serve as a research forest for our industry and beyond for many, many decades," Samuels said. "It's about the sustainability of our industry for the next generation of whiskey drinkers. And just it's the right thing to do."

Maker’s Mark is among a growing number of food and beverage companies helping to secure crops for farming in a changing climate. In 2017, General Mills partnered with The Land Institute and the University of Minnesota to commercialize Kernza, a drought-resistant perennial crop, for its organic cereal grain. In 2019, Anheuser-Busch InBev partnered with Benson Hill to develop barley varieties with better resistance to extreme heat and drought. Companies are already preparing for what they know is an uncertain and changing future.

A corporate-funded conservation movement

Maker’s Mark is not only focusing on resources that directly affect its supply chain but also conservation of nature more generally. Along with its work on new plant varietals, the company maintains a nature preserve, a water sanctuary and a pollinator garden. Its recycling program, which is open to the public, pulverizes used bourbon bottles into sand for hiking trails across the property.

The company also has a zero-landfill initiative, an employee compost, and it recently announced a B Corp certification, for which it qualified without any changes to its current practices.

Experts agree that conservation such as the type Maker’s Mark is spearheading will become imperative in the coming years. According to a 2021 report from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), half of the world’s GDP depends on nature.

"Any company that relies on water, agriculture, forest products, or a healthy workforce — in short, every single company on the planet — should be worried right now and stepping up to take action," said Sheila Bonini, senior vice president of private sector engagement at the World Wildlife Fund. "We’re at a tipping point where doing less harm is no longer enough. If businesses want stability and resilience, they need to invest in conservation and give more to nature than they take."

According to the UNEP report, every dollar invested in restoration creates up to $30 in economic benefits. And World Economic Forum showed that investment in nature could globally generate up to $10 trillion in additional annual business revenue and cost savings by 2030, while also creating 395 million new jobs. Large global banks and impact investors are taking the hint: HSBC and Credit Suisse have created new biodiversity funds.

Maker's Mark Sign

Companies can set high standards for conservation and regeneration that incorporate the latest science and technology. Image by Emily Payne/GreenBiz.

"If industry commits to financing the protection of forests and natural ecosystems, they will secure the health of their own business," said Charlotte Opal, executive director of the non-profit Forest Conservation Fund.

In addition to ecological benefits, forest conservation can also help support Indigenous peoples’ land rights. Indigenous lands contain 80 percent of global biodiversity, and investing in protecting these lands supports Indigenous communities' cultures, livelihoods and longtime stewardship of natural ecosystems.

The private sector has an opportunity to pave a path forward for other sectors. Companies can set high standards for conservation and regeneration that incorporate the latest science and technology, filling the gaps where policy may stop short — or move too slowly.

"Businesses wield this incredible, global influence, and at the same time, they can be incredibly agile and can respond to threats and opportunities much more quickly than governments or the general public en masse," Bonini said. While businesses inarguably put pressure on the environment, she sees "so much untapped potential to turn business into a powerful force for good."

As with any environmental initiative, these projects are at risk of greenwashing. "There’s a long history of lofty commitments that haven’t been delivered on," said Mike Wironen, director of corporate engagement for The Nature Conservancy. Companies must be held accountable, and standards for measuring and reporting on private-sector conservation activities can help promote transparency.

But Wironen is also seeing a shift. Companies are not only setting ambitious conservation goals — upwards of billion-dollar investments in nature — they are allocating the resources to actually deliver on them. Some are even tying executive performance to sustainability: Danone links 20 percent of its executives’ annual variable compensation to its social, societal and environmental targets, and PepsiCo and Chipotle Mexican Grill directly link executive bonus awards to their success in achieving sustainability goals.

"We need to step up and all be accountable for a more sustainable future," Samuels said. "The future of our industries is at stake in some ways."

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