This tale is for the bourbon drinking art lovers out there. I’m Kentucky born and bred, meaning I’m accustomed to the sight, smell and flavor of this dark mysterious liquor being around my universe since before conscious memory. Step inside the boundaries of the Bluegrass State and bourbon is everywhere to be found – to drink, to smoke, to eat, to collect, to wear – this elixir can be dressed up and brought along to any occasion. Now add to that list, to behold, as a work of art and inspiration for creative expression as seen in a recent exhibit at the Maker’s Mark Distillery.
Admittedly art isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when considering a visit to Maker’s Mark. Certainly bourbon is high on the list, but the elements facilitating its creation surround the senses when in Loretto. Consider the wood from the barrels, water from Whisky Creek, the aroma of raw mash in the air, and those distinctive square bottles hand-dipped in red wax. Put all those together and a masterpiece is the resulting product.
World renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly sensed this work of art and the craftsmanship that goes into making a fine bourbon. He was first approached by Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s Mark, about commissioning a signature installation for his family run distillery’s 60th anniversary. The Seattle-based artist enthusiastically agreed and the result was the “Spirit of the Maker,” unveiled in 2014, that permanently resides in a small rick house visitors walk through connecting the distillery’s tasting rooms and gift shop areas.
Yet a grander vision was imagined by Chihuly on his visit for the unveiling that would stretch his creative canvas across the distillery’s grounds upon which his unique style of handblown glass sculptures might pay homage to the artistry and local natural resources that combine in the production of Maker’s Mark. Three years later six additional installations were selected to join the “Spirit of the Maker,” rounding out the exhibit “Chihuly at Maker’s.”
Loretto remains a dedicated journey from most known paths. Located 60 miles southwest of Lexington, it’s not a place one casually runs across. A sure giveaway to know you’ve arrived in Maker’s Mark country is when black buildings with red shutters start dotting the landscape.
This once sleepy distillery has transformed in recent years to a bustling operation. Partly due to the success of Maker’s trendsetting Ambassador program, which coincided with the meteoric rise in bourbon’s popularity and the distillery’s inclusion as a stop on the widely popular Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
These are credited with significantly increasing tourist traffic to this tiny hamlet of 709 residents. Add to those enticements a tasteful new visitors’ center, a recently opened underground limestone whisky cellar and the availability of a restaurant on the premises in the renovated Distiller’s House.
I visited around Christmas, which lends a favorable color scheme to Maker’s Mark. The landscaping and Christmas decorations put a festive spin upon our arrival. Inside the antique-feeling visitors’ center the Jimi Hendrix classic “All Along The Watchtower” emanated softly from the sound system as my mom and I purchased our tour tickets.
Above the concierge desk resided what became the first stop on the Chihuly tour, with his recently created “Amber and New Oak Chandelier.” With colors ranging from a deep brown glass to almost white, the hundreds of textured pieces used to assemble this piece form a collage effect in melding the colors to take on an amber hue when looked at from a few feet back, signifying the color of bourbon. No interior lighting is included for this sculpture, instead the hundreds of textured pieces are designed to ingest natural lighting and reflect it from all directions.
While we waited for the tour to commence, complimentary bourbon-brewed coffee was available. Out back is a wonderful terrace offering a scenic vista. Don’t be surprised if the house cat, Whisky Jean, doesn’t saunter over to say hello.
Leading down the hill to the still house from the visitors’ center is a swerving pathway outlined by “Red Reeds.” Here some 175 red glass posts ranging in size from 6 to 10 feet marked the way and reminded walkers the color that sets this brand off.
Exploding from a wooden row-boat perched upon rocks mere feet from the stone fence that borders Whisky Creek was a glass menagerie of what can be imagined as flower petals, its leafy sepal, translucent eels and jutting reeds all bursting forth in brilliant animation. “The Crimson and Chestnut Fiori Boat” is pure Chihuly and is set off in bizarre fashion against the elemental rocks and grass situated below.
Across the waterway in a neutral green space is what could be considered the centerpiece of the exhibit. “Summer Sun” is a swirling orb of commotion. Some 1,600 pieces of glowing red, orange and yellow glass stand an impressive 12 feet tall and 12 feet across and deep. You could say it has presence. From a distance it almost seems to float. This one must jump out in the evening sky if here for “Chihuly Nights.”
A big part of life in the creation of Maker’s Mark centers on water. Chihuly honored this aspect with “Sapphire and Platinum Waterdrop Tower.” This 12 foot tall drink of water appears to shoot up into the sky, like a geyser erupting from its rock and earthen base. Its reflective sapphire blues, whites, and platinum catch the liquid element so integral to whisky making as if it were flash frozen in time.
With water in mind the tour took a subterranean turn into the earthen enclosure that is Maker’s new limestone cellar. The air inside is naturally chilled to around 50 degrees and an odor of rock and soil sticks close. In the rear the polished limestone rock face remains exposed, directionally lit, highlighted in the darkness, like a portrait that only nature could create. Heavy wood racks store some 2,000 barrels of Maker’s 46 and Private Select that require a cooler climate to finish the aging process, so production may continue year around.
In this darkened atmosphere Chihuly’s “Red Baskets” sat. Five individual pieces, red in color, perched on a crisp white counter and spotlighted from above. Each was meant to resemble a woven Indian basket, that had grown soft with age and become lopsided. The lighting offered a separate dimension of viewing as a red shadow was cast down upon the white surface each sat upon. These intricate pieces were somewhat dwarfed by the enormous rock face they sat before, but introduced a fragile element into this thick earthen, rock atmosphere.
The tour now delivered us to the spot whence this exhibit began, with the “Spirit of the Maker.” This for me was the show stopper, and distinguished itself from the other pieces in that Chihuly crafted it especially for Maker’s, and its choice of placement and grand scope make it a unique creation to Loretto.
I knew it was coming as I traipsed down the dusty wooden walkway leading toward the gift shop. Having just consumed several samples from the different labels Maker’s Mark has to offer, including its Cask Strength that ranges in barrel proof from 108-114, my eyes were in an advantageous mood for the grandeur of what was to come.
Aged barrels stacked from floor-to-ceiling walled in the pathway that funneled guests toward this 37 foot long by 6 foot wide transparent Persian ceiling, filled with all manner of Chihuly created glass wonderments. They resembled sea anemone, shells and undulating jelly fish, all in astounding translucent colors.
The pieces are warmly lit from behind to project a kaleidoscope of changing colors that shift across the wooden exterior below. From a few paces off the “Spirit of the Maker” stops visitors in their tracks to take in its complexity and unexpected juxtaposition. But walk up under the installation and viewers can find hidden treasures, like little cherubs floating majestically above.
For those that haven’t had the pleasure of a drive to Loretto. Do it, you’ll thank yourself. Even though the “Chihuly at Maker’s” exhibit has since closed, the “Spirit of the Maker” remains and is worth the adventure by itself. Visit on a Friday or Saturday during the summer months and take a tour with your dinner at Star Hill Provisions to see Maker’s Mark in a different light. A trip to Loretto is a day well spent in the heart of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country.
MAKER’S MARK | 3350 Burks Spring Road | Loretto, KY 40037 | 270.865.2099