It’s impossible to tell the story of modern American whiskey without Maker’s Mark. Before the brand launched in 1959, Kentucky bourbon certainly existed, but it was a backwoods drink with an unsavory reputation. Shortages during Prohibition and WWII drove people toward vodka and other novel spirits, and caused the closure of many whiskey distilleries. In the face of a crumbling industry, Bill Samuels threw out his family’s recipe, went back to the drawing board, and created a game-changing formula that bucked bourbon’s tattered image. With a lot of perseverance and some brilliant marketing moves, it went on to lay the groundwork for booming high-end bourbon category we know today.
This brief history (there’s a lot more intrigue when you get into it) goes some way toward explaining why the public backlash has been so severe in light of this past weekend’s announcement by COO Rob Samuels that Maker’s Mark will lower its bottling proof to 84-proof (42% ABV) from the original 90-proof (45%) bottling.
The surface motivations for the move are clear: Demand has outstripped supply, and since the aging process of bourbon means news batches take many years to produce (Maker’s is usually aged between 5.75 to 6.5 years), the only way to service immediate demand is to extend the current stock. And the only way to do that is by cutting the booze with more water.
Needless to say, drinkers are more concerned with the product than the brand’s bottom line. The Maker’s Facebook page has been stormed by angry fans, many of whom are calling for a boycott (the fact the the company is owned by the mega-national Beam Inc. doesn’t help ease the public outcry). In an official letter that has circulated about the decision, Samuels writes, “We’ve…done extensive testing with Maker’s Mark drinkers, and they couldn’t tell a difference.” Still, less juice for the same amount of money is always going to be a tough sell.
To help make sense of this controversial move, we reached out to some booze-world professionals to get their take on the issue.
Jim Meehan, the James Beard Award-winning owner of PDT in the East Village, takes a measured response to the news, urging people to wait to taste the new stuff before making a final judgment, especially since Maker’s has always been a lower-proof, easy-drinking bourbon anyway. However, he cries foul on the suggestion that no one will even notice the difference: “I can assure you that dropping the proof will change the character of the product: The ABV [alcohol by volume] tells you how much bourbon is in the barrel—[a lower proof means] there’s less bourbon in the barrel, and more water.”
Very few brands have a story that’s so sterling, so you wonder, why did you change the story? It was great.
For Meehan, the question of whether Maker’s at a lower proof will still be a good bourbon doesn’t change the feeling of “disappointment—like when you’re upset with friend or girlfriend.” The consumer response is a clear testament to the power of the brand’s heritage. “They nailed the story, and then they changed it,” he says. “Very few brands have a story that’s so sterling, so you wonder, why did you change the story? It was great.”
Park Avenue Liquor Shop owner Jonathan Goldstein also points to the powerful “psychological aspect” at play in the backlash. “Even if you really could not taste the difference, [people]…are going to feel cheated,” he says.
As a retailer, Goldstein says he saw the signs of change on the horizon during the holidays, when “certain sizes [were] not available to us at any moment.” However, he was still surprised by the solution to the problem: “I envisioned there being a true shortage for a time before supplies caught up with demand—I never thought Maker’s would go the Hamburger Helper route.”
Despite their concerns about the how the product will be affected, both Meehan and Goldstein point out that this move is by no means unprecedented in the history of commercial distilling. In 2004, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 dropped from 86 proof to 80, and the newer 81-proof Wild Turkey is now far more common than the original 101-proof rye. And it’s commonplace for foreign brands—like Tanqueray and Beefeater—to create different strengths for export versus domestic consumption. Indeed, one might speculate that Maker’s is driven in part by its growing position as an global brand. Due to staggering excise taxes in certain countries, it is almost impossible to sell a high-proof spirit at a reasonable price in those markets.
These economic realities might shed some light on the discussions going on behind closed doors at Maker’s Mark HQ, but they will do little to assuage consumers who just want the product they know and love.
Alla Lapushchik, owner of the brown spirits-focused bar Post Office in Williamsburg, takes the drinker’s point of view: “I like whiskey to start at a higher proof that I can water down to my preference. The proof probably still ends up being around 90, but I can choose depending on the whiskey whether I wanted it a little stronger or not.” Part of the popularity of more robust, cask-strength whiskeys within the bar community comes down to this ability to temper the heat of the spirit to taste—whether that means adding a splash of water or an ice cube, or mixing other ingredients into a cocktail. (Whether the new 84-proof Maker’s will hold up in a classic mint julep is yet to be seen.)
I envisioned there being a true shortage for a time before supplies caught up with demand—I never thought Maker’s would go the Hamburger Helper route.
Ultimately, even those who understand the economics of the move hold out hope that this is a stop-gap solution until production catches up with demand. “Hopefully, they’ll make and age more bourbon and then bring back [the original strength],” says Meehan.
In the meantime, he notes that “you can’t always drink George T. Stagg,” referring to the cultish 142-proof whiskey produced by Buffalo Trace. That said, “There’s certainly a place for 42- and 43-percent bourbons [in the market],” he continues.
Whether or not Maker’s is the brand that should occupy that category is something for consumers to decide as they vote with their wallets in coming years.
- Lew Bryson’s response on Whiskey Advocate
- Quartz’s initial report of the news, including the official letter from Maker’s Mark CEO Rob Samuels to the brand’s ambassadors
- 7 great Kentucky whiskeys to buy, including Maker’s 46, which won’t be lowering its proof
- Maker’s Mark brand history on Serious Eats
Written by Chris Schonberger (@cschonberger)