LORETTO — Maker's Mark Distillery raised the bourbon tourism bar Wednesday, unveiling a world-class artwork nestled among barrels of aging spirits.
"I'd like to toast the founders of Maker's Mark — my grandparents — to celebrate their vision. I'd also like to toast Dale Chihuly, an American treasure," Rob Samuels, Maker's Mark's chief operating officer, said as he saluted the world-renowned Seattle glass artist standing beneath 36 feet of hand-blown splendor. "We're so honored to have this beautiful installation here that will be enjoyed by hundreds and hundreds of thousands of bourbon lovers and Maker's Mark fans."
Made of about 1,300 individual pieces of glass, Chihuly's piece, The Spirit of the Maker, will cap the tour for throngs of visitors who come to the Marion County distillery, designated a National Historic Landmark.
"I'm excited about having the opportunity to work in this beautiful, historical building and to make a piece for the 60th anniversary," Chihuly said. "It's also the first piece I have on public view in Kentucky. ... Just come on down."
Chihuly said the piece, created after a handwritten letter arrived from Samuels asking Chihuly to consider a commission, was inspired by bourbon and Maker's Mark. Its blue glass represents water, amber and green for corn and wheat, and red for Maker's Mark's famous wax. The ceiling installation is made up of Chihuly's Persian series of elements, which he started creating in 1986, according to his studio.
A ribbon of red glass runs through circles, swirls, tendrils and seashells, culminating in a panel with only red pieces. Cherubic putti suggest the angels who get their share of bourbon in evaporation every year.
Altogether, it weighs about 1,875 pounds and was shipped to Loretto in 100 boxes. Three members of Chihuly's team installed the artwork over the bourbon barrels Feb. 18 to 22, after about six months of planning and blowing glass.
"You look at just one piece, and the depth and richness and the layering are just mind-boggling," Samuels said. "Really spectacular."
The piece was designed by Chihuly and laid out first at his studio in Washington state. Samuels said he was invited to help blow a small piece for the sculpture.
The piece resembles one of Chihuly's more visible public installations, a sculpture of colorful forms on the ceiling of the Bellagio hotel lobby in Las Vegas, but in a more intimate and dark space.
Maker's Mark's backlit 36-foot-by-6-foot installation, in a bourbon rack house next to the gift shop, will be part of the official tour beginning Thursday.
Although the piece wasn't scheduled to be open to the public Wednesday, Samuels apparently couldn't resist, and the Sizemore family from Liberty got an unexpected bonus at the end of their tour. They were among the first to see the Chihuly piece.
Nathan Sizemore, 40, said it was "pretty amazing." Pointing at Rebecca Sizemore, 15, he said, "She said, 'I want one for my ceiling.'"
That reaction was what inspired Samuels, who had bought a Chihuly piece for his home.
The price of the distillery piece was not disclosed; Chihuly has work in museums and public gardens all over the world.
For the distillery's 60th anniversary, Samuels said he wanted something special that reflected the hand-crafted spirit of his family's bourbon.
"We've been fans of Dale's for a long, long time," Samuels said. "And I know that our founders are looking down on us today and are smiling, and are so very pleased to have their creation expressed through this wonderful art."
Maker's Mark is giving a similar 10-piece work to Keeneland Race Course in Lexington. Chihuly also created this year's trophy for the upcoming Maker's 46 Mile, which will be run at the track on April 11.
"It's a good year to win our race," Samuels said.
Maker's Mark Distillery, owned by Beam Inc. of Deerfield, Ill., welcomed 120,000 tourists last year and is in the midst of an expansion that will increase its capacity by more than 50 percent.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.