Maker’s Mark Embraced Regenerative Agriculture. Will It Change Its Bourbon?

Maker’s Mark Embraced Regenerative Agriculture. Will It Change Its Bourbon?

Makers Mark

Maker’s Mark had a busy 2023, releasing its first age-stated bourbon and celebrating 70 years of operation. In addition, the Beam Suntory-owned distillery also announced their move toward regenerative agriculture, becoming the first whiskey producer to be third-party certified by Regenified.

The Tier 2 certification — there are five possible levels, and brands have three years to achieve the next designation up — signifies that they have implemented at least 20 to 40% of certified regenerative practices. And Maker’s has made it clear they have their sights set on getting to 100%.

The announcement almost immediately had some fans wondering whether the shift could influence flavor after the six to eight year aging process (not least among them whiskey writers). Will grain grown under different conditions have any impact on Maker’s Mark bourbon? While it’s impossible to predict exactly how the distillate will age, one of the brand’s in-house researchers has some educated guesses.

Drinkhacker was on site for the certification announcement and celebration as a guest of the brand. After, we sat down with Blake Layfield, Ph.D — Maker’s Mark’s Head of Innovation, Blending, and Quality — to discuss how the move will impact consumers and ultimately what’s going to be in those iconic wax-topped bottles.

Note: This interview has been edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: Can you give me a little background on the impetus or reason behind the move to the regenerative agriculture?

Blake Layfield: At Maker’s Mark, we view bourbon as nature distilled. And David, I know you have been to Loretto and you probably wondered the first time you were there, why would you ever build a distillery in the middle of nowhere? Our founders purchased the site due to its proximity to nature, respective of the wheat and corn farms and the water sources that exist there. And my role at Maker’s Mark is to protect and to enhance our existing portfolio while also creating our future through innovation, renovation, consumer experiences, and research at Star Hill Farms.

So if you think about innovation, it’s not just about new products, new bottles. It can be enhancing your existing ingredients or processes. And in our case, we’re doing that to consistently pursue that founder’s vision of making something that’s really at the peak of its flavor. And we’ve been learning and we’ve been growing to understand more about the relationship between grain variety, terroir, and regenerative agricultural practices, what they might mean for flavor. We’re just getting started on that journey.

Drinkhacker: What is different about grain grown under regenerative practices that could impact flavor of distillate and ultimately the aged bourbon that hits consumers?

Blake Layfield: Regenerative agriculture is really looking at the renewal of the food and farming systems. And it focuses on the whole chain, from the soil to plant health to ultimately to animal and human health. So regeneratively farmed foods, we believe, have a higher nutrient density than foods that are produced from soils that may be less healthy. Nutrient density is what’s going to be consumed during the fermentation process, and that’s where we believe that’s going to give you depth of flavor and complexity of flavor, and that’s going to incrementally drive quality in our new make spirit. So when I think about bourbon quality as a whole, you can roughly break it into two pieces. New make spirit quality and maturation quality.

And our mash bill is 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley. The mash bill is important, but so is the quality of those incoming grains. Again, what is the varietal of that grain, the terroir and the conditions by which you treat that terroir? So our corn and wheat supply have both been certified as Regenified Tier 2, and this leverages that lever of how you treat the terroir. So we believe this is going to yield a more nutrient dense ingredient, and that’s going to fuel flavor development in terms of flavor and complexity.

Drinkhacker: What are some specific nutrients or chemical compounds that you believe the certified agriculture actually carries into the mash?

Blake Layfield: We’re still learning on that aspect, but we do have some critical quality parameters that we look at around starch content, around moisture content, around those trace minerals. And the trace minerals are really where we’re going to see some of those bigger increases.

Drinkhacker: With the move to regenerative farming, there’s social impact, there’s environmental impact. But without knowing exactly how the whiskey will taste years down the road, is it fair to say there’s a leap of faith when it comes to the impact this will have on flavor?

Blake Layfield: I think that’s very fair to say. We are on that learning journey and right now what Tier 2 means is that 20 to 40% of the land is certified as Regenified. So if you’ve got a hundred acres, only 20% of those might be certified, but we’re still able to take all of that in as part of our supply chain practices. Now from Tier 2, our supply chain has three years in order to progress to Tier 3, which is 40 to 60% of the land. Tier 4 is 60 to 80%, and Tier 5, which is the final, is 80 to 100%. So we think that flavor is going to slowly, slowly change. We don’t view this as a sprint. We view this as a marathon to consistently pursue our flavor vision and also make our bourbon a little bit more sustainably.

Keep in mind that when we think about bourbon quality, new make spirit, I think of it as around 50% of your flavor profile, but the other 50% is maturation. So what we’re doing right now is we’re creating the new make spirit. How that matures out is what we’ll be understanding and better exploring over the next six to eight years. You’ve gotta have great new make spirit and really good maturation processes to have a really good quality bourbon. And so we think we’re pursuing really high quality new spirit and keeping our same principles of maturation — of six to eight years barrel rotation — to really provide a high quality product.

Drinkhacker: Is there any noticeable difference that you can measure in chemical analysis before and after the Regenified certification?

Blake Layfield: We look at new make spirit quality in a couple different ways. We look at it from an analytical perspective, and we look at fatty acid esters and volatile congeners. We look at our sugars and our acid profiles, which are pretty known analytical indicators of flavor. But ultimately the human nose is our most sensitive tool for assessing quality, as it can detect flavors that are far below the limit of detection by modern analytical techniques. So at this moment, we’re still gathering that data. We want to go through multiple seasons with our Regenified agriculture, multiple batches. We just started in November 2023 with this, but right now it is looking promising for us.

I can say the findings so far are trending in a good direction. We need to see how it’s going to mature out.

Drinkhacker: Here’s the big question: Is this going to change the flavor of Maker’s Mark?

Blake Layfield: I don’t think you have anything to be worried about as a consumer. For us, we’re not changing our grain varietal, we’re not changing our mashbill, we’re not changing our fermentation practices, conditions, distillation parameters, our maturation. We’re simply looking at increasing soil health. Our farmer and our supply chain base is also not changing. These are still the exact same farmers we were already using. They’re just taking some more sustainable practices within their farming techniques. So for us, we don’t expect to see really any change in our profile. What you might get is just a little bit more of the flavors that you already like.

David Tao is a writer for Drinkhacker.

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