Former Maker's Mark president says genetically modified corn shouldn't be an issue in bourbon

05/23/2013 11:51 AM

As U.S. farmers increasingly rely on genetically modified crops to boost their yields, that has spawned new questions for makers of finished food products, including America’s official drink that’s distilled here in Kentucky.

Bill Samuels Sr., the former President of Maker’s Mark, says genetically modified organisms don’t affect the end product of bourbon even though the liquor must be composed of at least 51 percent corn (and must be aged in new charred white oak barrels). But he said if consumers begin to demand bourbon distilled from organic corn, it’s something the industry might have to consider.

About 88 percent of the corn grown in the United States was produced using genetically modified seeds last year.

“I’m a scientist by education, and I know that GMO is one of those political rallies, but that 88 percent is going to get higher – especially if we have more droughts. I mean there’s no other choice,” Samuels said. “It’ll be interesting, because the motion often wins these kinds of debates. Unfortunately facts don’t seem to play in.”

Genetically modified crops are created to produce traits that are drought resistant varieties as well as crops that are able to be sprayed by weed killer. In Kentucky, corn farmers face invasive grasses that can quickly out grow and overtake their crops.

Samuels is now retired from Maker’s Mark, but still plays a role as an ambassador for Kentucky Bourbon and the future for the industry. He started Maker’s Mark in 1954, and has seen the industry boom.

Overall, Samuels said it will be up to consumers if they demand a product that is 100 percent organic, though he said it would cost significantly more. And he said there isn’t a scientific basis to offer non-GMO bourbon.

“Allergens do not make it out of through the distillation process – end of discussion. There’s been zero evidence that any of the undesirables make it through. That’s been established for 20-years, that’s not new science,” Samuels said.

The push for 100 percent organic products could put distilleries in a bind, especially with the dramatic rise in popularity. In 2012, more than 1 million barrels of the good stuff were laid back to age in Kentucky rick houses.

“Eventually the consumer will win the day, but it’s how important the hysteria is on the GMO issue,” Samuels said.


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