Maker’s Mark Distillery has issued a statement to the bourbon brand’s “Friends of Maker’s Mark” distancing itself from allegations of racial discrimination in public accommodations put forth in a lawsuit against Cordish Operating Ventures of Baltimore, which runs the “Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge” at Fourth Street Live in Louisville.
The suit, filed in Jefferson County Court on Dec. 19 by attorney Kurt Scharfenberger on behalf of Andre Mulligan, who is African-American, alleges that “officials of Maker’s Mark Lounge” queried Mulligan on the “ratio” of black guests to white guests he was planning to bring to the restaurant for an event in August.
When told that the party would be “100% black,” the suit alleges, Maker’s Mark Lounge/Cordish employees told the University of Louisville graduate that they would not allow the party to enter if they came by. When Mulligan, dressed in appropriate 4th Street Live attire including a button-down oxford and a tie, tried to enter the restaurant on August 18, the suit states, Lounge security refused him and his friends admission, while white patrons were allowed to enter the establishment.
Articles on the suit appeared on the Web sites of Courier-Journal (paywall protected), Courthouse News (a legal trade site) and on AlterNet ( a progressive news site). The AlterNet story made no distinction between the Baltimore, Md. headquartered restaurant, which was licensed to use the Maker’s Mark name as part of the incentive package put together by the city of Louisville in founding 4th Street Live and the distillery in Loretto, Ky.
Media spokespeople for The Cordish Co. of Baltimore, which operates the Maker’s Mark Lounge and is involved with a number of Fourth Street Live businesses, did not immediately return calls or emails requesting comment. A lawsuit puts forth only one side’s description of events.
UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, Cordish emailed this statement from Mike Leonard, identified as a Fourth Street Live spokesman: “This is a matter between a third party tenant and an individual. Neither Fourth Street Live! nor The Cordish Company nor any of their employees were involved in the alleged situation. The tenant has vigorously denied the allegations and stated they are totally false. In addition, we have conducted an independent investigation of the allegations and believe them to be without merit.”
The AlterNet article, which ran under the headline “The Most Racist Restaurant in America?….,” urged a local boycott of the restaurant and a national boycott of the signature Kentucky bourbon brand, suggesting drinkers replace it with Jack Daniels, a Tennessee whiskey product.
Twitter users picked up the notion of the boycott and circulated it on the microblogging site, while the @makersmark Twitter feed remained silent on the issue throughout Thursday.
Maker’s Mark, on Friday afternoon, through Doe Anderson Public Relations, issued a formal distinction between the two entities along with its “Letter To Friends.” The company’s statement reads: “Maker’s Mark licenses its name and trademark to a third party appointed by Cordish Operating Ventures, LLC, which is solely responsible for the ownership, operation and management of the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge in Louisville Kentucky. Maker’s Mark has no ownership or involvement in the Lounge whatsoever. Maker’s Mark was unaware of the complaint filed by Andre Mulligan against the Lounge until it was covered in the media and, contrary to a published report, no one from Maker’s Mark has had any dealings with Mr. Mulligan.”
Attorney Scharfenberger, a former JAG lawyer now in practice in Louisville, said the complaint is clearly against the restaurant, not the distillery.
“The distillery is not sued. I acknowledge that they have issued a thoughtful statement regarding the matter and we appreciate it.”
But citing an earlier Jefferson County lawsuit against Maker’s Mark Lounge in which a former marketing manager for the establishment complained when she was told to steer black customers from events, and in which a DJ was told not to play “black” music, Scharfenberger said, “It looks like there is a pattern and practice of discrimination at this restaurant.”
“I have no problem currently with Maker’s Mark, especially because they’ve put out this statement. But they should consider who they are branding their product with,” Scharfenberger said.
The attorney said that he required his client, who has two degrees from U of L, to sign a statement verifying the allegations as true before filing the suit.
Scharfenberger said that there seems to be a lot of “misinformation going around “my place, my rules,” citing the controversial statements of candidate Rand Paul on the Senatorial trail (to the Courier Journal editorial board) about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and business owners being able to say who can enter their establishments. “This is the very issue he was talking about,” Scharfenberger said.
“If it is open to the public, you must serve people regardless of the color of their skin. It is the law. It has been the law for more than four decades.”
“It may look like a business decision, but it’s a violation of the law regardless of what you think of it,” he said.
The suit asks for attorney’s fees and damages for lost wages/time at work, as well as damages for mental anguish and humiliation. But Scharfenberger says he has not put a dollar amount forward and is just trying to show that the incidents happened and are a violation of law. Scharfenberger said he does not support the boycott call for Maker’s Mark bourbon.”If you’re boycotting Maker’s Mark distillery, make sure you know why you’re boycotting it. This suit is about actions at the restaurant.”But, he said, if his client prevails, there are wider considerations. “There’s a Kentucky Civil Rights Act. The ground upon which that restaurant sits is owned by the taxpayers of Louisville. I’m not sure the city would take kindly to that.”
Text of the Response from Maker’s Mark
Dear Maker’s Mark Friends:
We wanted to share our response to media stories regarding the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge. Be assured that Maker’s Mark will take the appropriate actions in this situation.
Maker’s Mark licenses its name and trademark to a third party appointed by Cordish Operating Ventures, LLC, which is solely responsible for the ownership, operation, and management of the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge in Louisville Kentucky. Maker’s Mark has no ownership or involvement in the Lounge whatsoever. Maker’s Mark was unaware of the complaint filed by Andre Mulligan against the Lounge until it was covered in the media and, contrary to a published report, no one from Maker’s Mark has had any dealings with Mr. Mulligan.
“The allegations in the complaint are extremely serious and, if true, reflect behavior that is abhorrent and unacceptable, as well as absolutely contrary to the core brand values of Maker’s Mark. Maker’s Mark does not accept, and will not tolerate, discrimination in any form, and has so notified and warned the company which is solely responsible for the operation of the Lounge. While not involved in the litigation, Maker’s Mark will continue to monitor the situation closely and will take all actions it feels necessary under the circumstances.”
Bill Samuels, Jr.
Chief Operating Officer