These days it’s important to consider the environmental impact of our actions when we buy certain things – gasoline, for example. There will come a time when people realize thateverything we consume has an environmental impact, but for now, certain goods fly under the radar. Who knew, for example, that Maker’s Mark is blazing the trail for ecologically friendly distilleries? We caught up with Master Distiller Kevin Smith to get the scoop on the company’s sustainable initiatives.

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In case you’re not a whiskey drinker like me, Maker’s Mark makes a very decent, nationally distributed Kentucky bourbon. Which is why I was surprised to learn that the company uses locally sourced grain – corn and wheat from local farmers within a 30 mile radius of their facility in a small town in Kentucky. (They do get malted barley from Wisconsin and Minnesota – they say it can’t be grown in KY.) I was also surprised to learn that the Maker’s Mark Distillery functions on less than 200 of its 620 acres of land. The remaining land is operated as a nature preserve, where Maker’s Mark houses its own Arboretum of Kentucky native species on-site.

But what makes Maker’s Mark truly unique is its energy production facility that recycles the byproducts of the distillation process. Developed by Ecovation, the system takes the grain and water mix that is produced during distillation and recycles or uses it to generate renewable energy.

“The new system came online this summer,” Master Distiller Kevin Smith said in an email. “What we do is take the byproduct and squeeze out a good portion of the water. We will take the solids, or wet cake, and sell it on the local market as a grain feed for cattle.

“The water that gets squeezed out is processed through an anaerobic reactor. The bacteria in the reactor naturally break down the organics in the water and convert them to biogas. We then capture the biogas off the reactor and pipe it back to our boilers. The biogas is then used as a fuel for the boilers to help displace some of the natural gas that we currently use. We will save 15-30% on our natural gas consumption,” he wrote. Once the water goes through the anaerobic reactor, it’s sent to a conventional wastewater treatment plant before being discharged into Kentucky’s waterways.

Maker’s Mark is the only distillery in North America with such a facility. The $8 million system is estimated to produce 85 million BTUs a day, and will eventually produce up to 165 million BTUs a day as the distillery more than doubles its production of bourbon over the next 10 years.

Is it green?

“We do many things that are eco-friendly including recycling the majority of our waste, in particular glass, cardboard, paper, plastic, metals, and barrels. Right now we recycle approximately 95% of all our waste. We are looking to go to 0% waste discharge in the next 3 years. Other projects that may not be “unique” include forest stewardship, habitat improvement/sustainability, community outreach, and biodiversity (we do not use any genetically modified grains),” Master Distiller Kevin Smith said in an email.

The environmental moves are “the right thing to do,” Smith said, but they also make good business sense. Maker’s Mark wanted to increase production, and so they needed a better way to process their byproducts. The traditional way to do this is to use a dry house that will evaporate the water, consuming a large amount of natural gas and electricity and releasing emissions.

“We did not want to do that,” Smith said. “We own 620 acres in a small town in Kentucky. Most of our neighbors are our employees. Plus, we will host 80,000 tourists this year. We did not want to risk impacting the environment around us in anything but a positive way. It should also be noted that our Energy Production Facility is self-sustaining. The money that is saved by using biogas as a boiler fuel and the money that is generated by selling wet cake on the cattle feed market offsets the cost of running the facility and should actually help us turn a profit. It just made good business sense to do.”

If only all sustainable endeavors made good business sense. The distillery’s distributors ship the bottles, so Maker’s Mark has not made any foray into reducing the environmental costs of trucking its product. The company “encourages” its distributors to use eco-friendly transportation and sends out a letter that showcases Maker’s Mark’s environmental practices and urges distributors to pursue environmental stewardship. But, Smith said, they do consolidate warehousing and trucking with their “sister brands” to save on fuel and vehicle emissions, which he claims takes extra coordination to pull off.

The development of the Ecovation energy facility will set an example for other distilleries. Sustainable technology needs investment, and now that Maker’s has made the first move hopefully other distilleries will follow, and eventually the cost of the system will go down. At that point it would be bad business sense not to have one.

Although shipping and packaging still concern me (Maker’s Mark comes in a heavy glass bottle with an elaborate wax and paper seal and gets shipped internationally), it looks green to me. But maybe I just want to feel better about drinking it.

+ Maker’s Mark