The grounds of a bourbon distillery are a working piece of art — engaging all five senses harmoniously no matter where you’re standing or what you’re doing. Aesthetically, you have the deep brown of the barrels, the dark black of (some) rick houses and trees, the creamy yellow of bubbling mash, the vibrant green bluegrass, the bright blue Kentucky sky, and the rich amber of the final product.
It’s a pleasing palette many are experiencing as bourbon tourism grows in Kentucky. In fact, you don’t have to swallow a drop of bourbon to appreciate the quaint, time-honored traditions of the industry.
World-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly discovered this on his first visit to Maker’s Mark Distillery a few years ago, and he was immediately taken by the process, colors, traditions and dedication to the craft.
He drew connections between making bourbon and creating art, and he vowed to return to the grounds with new, inspired installations.
In 2014, Chihuly created “The Spirit of the Maker” for the distillery’s gift shop and tasting area. Now, six new installations have been created for “Chihuly at Maker’s,” a temporary exhibit that runs July 1 to Oct. 7.
Insider was invited out to the distillery in Loretto, Ky., to experience the artwork on Wednesday, and we can say without hesitation that a trip to Maker’s Mark should be added to your summer itinerary. The large-scale pieces are so intricate, colorful and breathtaking, we’re thinking about another visit at nighttime — when the art will be lit up in full glory — which Maker’s is offering every Saturday starting July 22.
Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s and an eighth-generation whiskey maker, led the media tour of the distillery, along with Chihuly representatives Britt Cornett and Tom Lind. Samuels said he and his daughter had been fans of Chihuly’s work for years, and after a visit to the “Chihuly at Cheekwood” exhibit in Nashville, he decided to sit down and write the artist a personal letter, asking him to come to Maker’s Mark and perhaps be inspired to create an installation.
Chihuly, now 75, immediately responded, and thus, the aforementioned “The Spirit of the Maker” was created as a Persian ceiling above resting barrels in a small rick house visitors walk through on their way to the gift shop. The piece has been a highlight of the distillery’s tour ever since, and even Chihuly himself said it was one of his most inspired working environments he’s ever created in.
Perhaps the wafting aroma of aging bourbon had something to do with that.
Chihuly, who works out of his hot shop in the Seattle area, has several site-specific installations around the world. It is certainly an achievement to host his art as a museum, let alone a bourbon distillery.
“Creating our handmade bourbon isn’t a job — it’s an art form,” Samuels said. “It’s an honor to have formed such a lasting relationship with Dale Chihuly.”
The first piece you come to on the tour is the “Amber and New Oak Chandelier” located in the Visitor’s Center. The hundreds of pieces of glass hang above and range from dark brown to white — creating an overall amber hue reminiscent of the color of bourbon.
As you start down the hill toward the original distillery building, you come upon “Red Reeds,” a series of tall, thin tubes of glass that reflect the Maker’s Mark signature red you see throughout the grounds on the shutters of each building. The pieces range in size from 6 to 10 feet tall, and there are approximately 175 of them situated along the walkway.
Making your way past the still house, you come to “Crimson and Chestnut Fiori Boat,” which is a traditional Chihuly piece that was inspired by his time in Finland creating the “Chihuly Over Venice” project. The boat contains an array of whimsical and colorful glass figures and appears to be overflowing as they spill out over the side.
Next up was our favorite of the show, the 12-foot-tall “Summer Sun” radiant globe of bright red, orange and yellow glass. It is perfectly centered among a triangle of trees, and again, showing off the signature Maker’s red, the piece comes alive with movement and energy. This is the piece we’d love to see at night, as Cornett, head of exhibitions for Chihuly, told us it appears as if it’s hovering when the only light is coming from spotlights below.
“Red Baskets” — located inside Maker’s new bourbon cave — is a series of bright red, wide, misshapen, funky glass baskets displayed on a white table near the aging barrels of Maker’s private selection program. The red absolutely pops inside the dark cellar, resting among hundreds of Maker’s 46 barrels against a limestone wall backdrop.
Finally, the last piece uses no red at all but references one of the major components that goes into creating bourbon — water. “Sapphire and Platinum Waterdrop Tower” stands 12 feet off the ground and appears to be a water source gushing from the ground, with all the gusto of Old Faithful. The colors range from dark blue to white and, again, the piece creates the sensation of movement.
Because photographs can only go so far, seeing these massive, engaging works of art in person is a must.
Three of the six pieces — “Chandelier,” “Boat” and “Waterdrop” — were created specifically for this exhibit, while the others were selected by Chihuly to complement the distillery grounds.
The official opening of “Chihuly at Maker’s” is set for Saturday, July 1, at 6:30 p.m. Admission to this special occasion is $50 and includes a meal and two drinks from the distillery’s new onsite restaurant, Star Hill Provisions. After Saturday, the exhibit will be a part of the regular tour ($12).
And on Saturdays, from July 22-Oct. 7, you can visit the distillery at night from 6-10 p.m. for a special after-hours tour. Admission for this is $20, and reservations can be made online.
“Chihuly at Maker’s” continues through Oct. 7.
Here’s a look at our experience at the Maker’s Mark Distillery on Wednesday: