A Day on the Trail: A Visit to Maker’s Mark to Experience the Glassworks of the Late Stephen R. Powell
Years ago once you visited a distillery you could pretty much check it off your bucket list as done. Today as state laws have changed around the nation and distilleries are allowed to serve guests spirits samples, cocktails and food there is now a reason to go back to visit a distillery again and again. This helps to explain why the number of visitors to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail has exploded since its inception in 1999. Attendance has grown 314 percent in the past 10 years with visitors pouring into distilleries from all corners of the world.
When you are a distillery that’s a little off the beaten path you need to work a little harder to create an experience that will give your fans a reason to come back over and over and Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky is doing just that.
The Samuel’s family has been distilling at this same location since founding Maker’s in 1953. The distillery has always had an affinity for artwork. If you go to the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville you’ll see several examples of mid-50’s distillery paintings that are currently on loan from Maker’s Mark. If you’ve visited the distillery in the past you likely saw the glass exhibit of sea urchins and cherubs by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. That artwork is on permanent exhibit in the ceiling of one of the barrel warehouses. If you look real close there are five cherubs hiding among the urchins. And last fall there was an extensive collection of Chihuly pieces on display around the distillery campus and inside the Maker’s underground whiskey cellar.
Bringing the Artwork of Stephen Rolfe Powell to Maker’s Mark
In 2018 Maker’s started discussions to bring the blown glassworks of another world renowned artist Stephen Rolfe Powell whose work is featured in museums and private collections all over the world. Powell is a local artist who worked and taught in Danville at Kentucky’s Centre College, just a short drive from Maker’s Mark. Unfortunately, Powell unexpectedly passed away on March 16 of this year. To honor his memory, vision and significant impact on the world of art glass, Powell’s family elected to move ahead with the project.
“We started the conversation with Stephen late last Spring and we had our first planning meeting in the Fall,” said Roy Lee Wigginton, Distillery Events Manager at Maker’s Mark. “From there, it kind of evolved and he had lots of ideas and sketches in notebooks. Then unfortunately he passed away in March. We thought after that, that it wouldn’t happen but his wife Shelly reached out and still wanted to display his work. She said, ‘I didn’t know a ton about what he had planned but I know that he was really excited about it.’ She asked if we were still willing, she would like to continue with the exhibit.”
And thankfully for the rest of the world his studio has coordinated the selection and display of 43 gorgeous pieces of his work from his personal collection spanning various phases of his remarkable career, some of which have never before been displayed publicly.
“Probably about 30% of what is on display at Maker’s right now has never been on display to the public before,” said Whigginton.
Powell’s close relationship with Maker’s Mark began several years ago when he created a rare commissioned work which has been on display at the distillery ever since. If you’ve been in the gift shop you’ve probably seen the approximately three foot tall piece of blown glass with the words Maker’s Mark embedded inside the glass. If you watch the video below you’ll learn how that’s done. It’s fascinating to see the intricate details and hard work necessary to make these amazing pieces of art.
“I’ve always admired Stephen’s unique vision, his attention to detail and total dedication to his craft,” said Maker’s Mark Chief Distillery Officer Rob Samuels. “Because we share those values with him, Stephen felt the distillery would be a perfect setting for this exhibition and we’re thrilled to host it.”
Large Scale Dramatic Multi-color Vessels Adourn the Distillery
The artwork is divided into four locations mostly indoors with a pair of pieces shimmering in the sun out on the visitor center terrace. Click on any photo to enlarge.
Inside the Welcome Center – The Teasers and Screamers Series
When you arrive in the Maker’s Mark Distillery visitor center you are welcomed with multiple pieces of Powell’s artwork.
Outside on the Terrace – The Zoomers Series
Most of Powell’s work was meant to be kept indoors but he did do several pieces that were meant to be outside. Seeing them in the sun really lets the intricate glass colors blend and show through.
The Barrel Warehouse – The Wackos Series
When you arrive in the barrel warehouse the first thing you do is get hit with the lovely aroma of aging bourbon. As you turn the corner and the lights come up you’ll see seven of Powell’s pieces mixed in among the barrels.
The Whiskey Cellar – The Echoes Series
This is probably the most stunning of all rooms. The Whiskey Cellar was opened in 2016 to age products like Maker’s 46 and Maker’s Private Select. It’s a cellar that was created by dynamiting a whole in the mountainside to create a fully enclosed barrel warehouse that is kept at a cool 55° degrees year round. As a cellar it’s kept in total darkness so any light that is provided in there makes the glassworks stand out like the sun in the sky.
Stephen Powell’s Work is on Display Through November 30, 2019
This special exhibition acts as a celebration of the life and career of one of the genre’s most acclaimed, visionary and influential figures and runs now to November 30, 2019 at the distillery.
In addition to Powell’s own distinctive work, dozens of other glass artists from around the world, some of whom are very well-known, have agreed to donate pieces which will be also be on display – uniquely designed and hand-crafted bourbon decanters/bottles created specifically to honor Powell. These pieces will be auctioned off to collectors at the close of the exhibition with proceeds going to the Stephen Rolfe Powell Memorial Fund at Centre College to help art students continue their education.
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How Did Powell Make those Huge Glass Vessels?
If you are the curious type and wonder how on earth Stephen made such beautiful pieces here’s an almost 15 minute video that takes you through the process. It goes from a chunk of molten glass about the size of a two liter bottle and he magically and methodically, along with a team of artists, turns it into a truly one of a kind piece of art. One wrong move and the entire thing is ruined and shattered into a million pieces as it hits the concrete floor.
Dazzling Glass Sculptures of Stephen Powell – Flat Bowls of Color