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Bottling line workers help keep Maker’s Mark moving

By Stephen Lega

Visitors from all over the United States and across the globe come to Loretto to visit Maker’s Mark distillery. For many of them, one of the highlights of the trip is getting to watch bottles being dipped into the bourbon’s signature red wax — live and in person.
“It’s kind of fun because you can tell they enjoy watching you do your job,” said Jenny Spannknebel, one of the bottling line workers at Maker’s Mark.
Spannknebel has worked at the distillery for nearly 15 years. She’s held a variety of positions, including jobs as a still operator and at the distillery’s treatment plant, before she joined the bottling line last December.
She admitted that learning to dip bottles made her a little nervous at first.
“I thought, ‘I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to do this,’” Spannknebel said. “It’s a little intimidating at first. You have to do a quality job and keep the line running. But once you get used to it, it all comes together.”
The technique sounds simple. Dippers pick up a bottle, turn it upside down, dip the top into the wax, pull it out, and then turn the bottle, which is known as “cutting the tail off,” according to Spannknebel.
Depending on the size of the bottle, workers will dip 15 to 23 bottles per minute. That means each person can dip 450 to 690 bottles during a 30-minute stint at a dipping station.
Bottling line workers will rotate among various jobs during their shifts. Forklift operators unload pallets filled with boxes of empty bottles. The boxes are sent to the front of the line, where they are emptied by hand and loaded onto a conveyer belt.
The bottles are rinsed with Maker’s Mark rather than water (so that any residue does not water down the product), filled with bourbon and labeled before they arrive at the dipping stations.
Depending on the size of the order, there may be two to four dippers working on a given day, according to Spannknebel.
After the bottles are dipped, more bottling line employees place them back into boxes so they can be reloaded onto pallets and loaded onto delivery trucks.
Occasionally, dippers will “slam dunk” a bottle. This is when they dip the entire neck of a bottle into the wax.
Even more rarely, dippers accidentally drop a bottle into the wax.
“I’ve seen it happen, but I haven’t done it,” Spannknebel said as she knocked on a wood table.
When a bottle does fall in wax, it’s removed with tongs. Those bottles are never sent out. Instead, the bourbon is removed so it can be rebottled.
Theresa Downs has dropped a bottle in the wax, and she said when it happened, she worried that she would be fired. She wasn’t.
Downs has worked at Maker’s Mark for 11 years, including 10 years on the bottling line. Like Mattingly, she said learning to dip was a little overwhelming.
“I didn’t think that it was possible,” Downs said. “I wanted to cry because I didn’t think I could do it. Yeah, it was scary at first. Now, it’s just like it was always meant to be.”
Downs also said she was nervous the first time she was dipping in front of an audience.
“Now, it’s just like they’re meant to be here, too. They’re part of us,” she said.
Grace Mattingly, who has worked at Maker’s Mark and on the bottling line for seven years, agreed. The enthusiasm of the visitors also makes her feel more comfortable about having her photo taken while she’s at work.
“I hate cameras, but when I’m in here, they don’t bother me one bit,” she said.
Mattingly said initially it was kind of strange having people watch her work, but now she sees the visitors a good part of her day.
Safety is also a priority at the dipping stations. Workers wear aprons, safety glasses, gloves and protective sleeves as they stand over the melted red wax.
Mattingly said she didn’t know the exact temperature of the wax, but she knows from experience that no one should touch it.
“It’s very hot. It will blister you instantly,” Mattingly said.
Mattingly grew up in Marion County, but she acknowledged that she had never visited Maker’s Mark distillery until she got a job there. Knowing that, she encourages locals to see the distillery for themselves.
“It’s a beautiful place,” she said.
But the scenery is just one of the things she likes about working at the distillery. She also enjoys her coworkers.
“Everybody is so helpful. We all try to help each other,” Mattingly said.
Downs agreed that there’s something special about working at Maker’s Mark, which she described as having a laid back, family atmosphere. She also has a simple explanation for why she has remained at the distillery for more than a decade.
“The magic,” Downs said. “To me, what it is is the people, the place, the product.”