Making Sense of the “Watering Down” of Maker’s Mark

Bartenders and liquor store owners respond to the brand's controversial decision to drop the proof of its famous bourbon.

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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.

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Written by Chris Schonberger (@cschonberger)

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