Few industries hear the ticking of the environmental doomsday clock quite as loudly as the world-famous, billion-dollar industry tucked into the quiet woods of Kentucky. Here, big businesses have thrived silently in some of the poorest communities in the U.S. And here, this centuries-old industry may take its very last sip. Now, those living off the water and trees found in Kentucky are doing their best to become environmental warriors…but it may already be far too late.

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In a sleepy community that many people have never heard of and couldn’t find on a map, a huge industry is quietly chugging away, becoming bigger and bigger with each passing year. The products it creates are shipped to literally every single corner of the globe, celebrated and enjoyed as both a luxury and everyday libation.

Related: This distillery helps you make delicious, carbon-negative cocktails

Bourbon is an $8.5 billion a year industry and it relies on agriculture to exist. All bourbon must have 51% corn content and must be aged in a white oak barrel that is only used once for this purpose, no more.

You may not have any idea where to find Loretto, Kentucky. But you have heard of Kentucky bourbon. And this industry is scrambling at the 11th hour to become more sustainable than ever before. That’s because the bourbon industry is dependent upon a single species of tree. And that tree will be extinct within one generation.

The 1100 acres of Maker’s Mark are impressive. There’s an orchard encompassing four acres, a glorious place rife with pecans. Truffles actually grow naturally there. The grounds are full of native warm season grasses that benefit from natural water filtration. The solar array on-site generates approximately 236,000 kwh per year.

A stone sign that reads the Maker's Mark Solar Array with a fence, solar panel, and black building behind it

Cattle for the restaurant is raised on the property. The grounds are full of apple trees, pear trees and blackberry plants. There are 30 varieties of wheat grown here. And it is home to the largest genetic repository of the white oak. The massive area takes up 23 acres.

Maker’s isn’t the only distillery that is focusing on sustainability. Beam Suntory, who makes Jim Beam, has plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. Diageo, makers of Bulleit Bourbon, plans to be net zero by 2050 across the entire brand. Both Beam Suntory and Diageo are reducing water usage as well.

And the truth is, that won’t be enough. All of these efforts, while impressive, could be too late. More white oak is being consumed for bourbon than what can be grown, according to Louisville Public Media. Meanwhile, the state of Kentucky is in dire environmental straits. Topsoil is being depleted and the watershed is under threat. Transporting bourbon releases dangerous CO2 into the air.

Inhabitat recently had the opportunity to tour Maker’s Mark and to speak with Kim Harmon, director of safety and sustainability and Brian Mattingly, director, Star Hill Farm operations about bourbon, sustainability and the trees at the heart of it all.

Inhabitat: Does Maker’s Mark have any future plans to achieve net-zero emissions?

Kim Harmon, director of safety and sustainability: It is our goal at Maker’s Mark to do all that we can to leave the world a better place than we found it. We are always considering methods to reduce emissions in a way that is authentic and congruent with the Maker’s Mark brand and the vision of our founders.

Inhabitat: How much glass does Maker’s recycle per year?

Kim Harmon: Last year, Maker’s Mark repurposed around 135 tons of glass using our on-site pulverizers. This glass is reused at Star Hill Farm for landscaping, pathways and raised garden beds to improve aeration in the soil. We are also extremely proud of our onsite recycling program [through which] employees and our community neighbors…bring their recyclable materials to the distillery for processing.

Inhabitat: What is Maker’s doing to offset the carbon footprint created by transporting bourbon?

Kim Harmon: Maker’s Mark sees transportation as a huge area of opportunity. Currently, we are piloting an EV semi-trailer truck for barrel transportation between warehouses. Additionally, Maker’s Mark is implementing a biodiesel pilot program to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Although both are in early stages, this is a major area of focus for the brand.

Inhabitat: What happens to the barrels? How many of them does Maker’s recycle and resell and how many are destroyed annually?

Kim Harmon: All of Maker’s Mark barrels are sold or transferred to other industries for reuse – particularly in the Scotch whiskey, Japanese whiskey and tequila industries.

Inhabitat: Does Maker’s use any water-saving practices and how are the farm and livestock areas watered?

Brian Mattingly, director, Star Hill Farm operations: Water conservation is a huge part of our commitment to our land. Our water softener project was designed and launched to improve water quality, protect our water source and reduce city water usage by 9.5 million gallons per year.

The livestock are currently watered with free-choice pond access, as well as supplemental drinkers fed by municipal water. These drinkers ensure clean, unfrozen water access in the colder months, as well as ample clean water in drought periods.

Inhabitat: Is the white oak repository going to be enough to save this tree species from extinction?

Brian Mattingly: Experts are still determining the level of risk facing the white oak species, but Maker’s Mark is committed to mapping the genome and planting the White Oak Research Forest at Star Hill Farm to ensure the best future for a risk-resistant, sustainable supply for generations to come.

White oak sustainability leaders tell us that these two projects are the most important investments made thus far in ensuring a sustainable supply of genetically superior seedlings will be available for planting in the entire growing range.

Inhabitat: Will this be enough to provide Maker’s with all the white oak barrels it needs and what about white oaks and the rest of the world?

Brian Mattingly: Although the 23-acre research forest is not intended to produce future logs that will be made into barrels, the project holds the answers to current and future questions regarding the species and will act as an invaluable resource for academic and industry leaders and researchers over the next 100-plus years.

Inhabitat: What else is Maker’s doing to prevent the extinction of these trees and when all white oaks are gone, will bourbon no longer be made?

Brian Mattingly: In addition to the dedication of 23 acres to the Research Forest, which is the world’s only complete collection of all known diversity of the species, we continue to participate and collaborate with groups of committed leaders such as White Oak Initiative, University of Kentucky, Independent Stave Company, Suntory and others to ensure we protect and improve the species. Later this year, we plan to co-host a workshop with experts from the U.S. and Europe on white oak genetics to bring further international collaboration on the topic.

+ Maker’s Mark Distillery

Images via Maker’s Mark Distillery