Maker’s Mark Change Is A Matter Of Principle

A carefully worded email is always bad news. I got one today, as did all the other Maker’s Mark Ambassadors, from Rob and Bill Samuels Jr. The email informed Ambassadors that due to rising demand and lack of supply, Maker’s Mark would now contain less alcohol content. What that means is they’ll water it down (with mineral water, most likely) to spread the supply of bourbon around and produce more bottles than originally possible.

The exact wording of the explanation was this:

We wanted you to be the first to know that, after looking at all possible solutions, we’ve worked carefully to reduce the alcohol by volume (ABV) by just 3%. This will enable us to maintain the same taste profile and increase our limited supply so there is enough Maker’s Mark to go around, while we continue to expand the distillery and increase our production capacity.

We have both tasted it extensively, and it’s completely consistent with the taste profile our founder/dad/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr., created nearly 60 years ago.  We’ve also done extensive testing with Maker’s Mark drinkers, and they couldn’t tell a difference.

Being a fan of Maker’s Mark, someone who used to work with the brand (though it’s been four years since I’ve had involvement and a lot has changed) and an informal bourbon ambassador to the social media world, it came as no surprise that several people wanted my take on this development. One Facebook thread I was tagged into was full of outrage about the move. And that reaction won’t be limited.

 

First, let’s remind ourselves that the laws of supply and demand are hard to manage. In the bourbon industry, they’re impossible since your product is put away in rack houses years before it will ever go to market. Master Distillers don’t have to produce enough inventory to fill the demand today. They have to predict what the demand will be two, four, seven, 10 or more years from now, depending on how long the spirit in question is aged. For Maker’s Mark to have accurately predicted the demand and boom in the bourbon industry five to seven years ago (which is the age range for Maker’s Mark), would be like picking the winning lottery tickets three or four weeks in a row.

That said, there are several different ways to deal with a spirit shortage. You can raise prices and explain that the stuff is so good, you can’t keep up so consumers will need to pay a premium to get it. You can water it down or mix it with other spirits to increase supply, but this typically sacrifices quality. Or you can run out and have pissed off customers. So, Maker’s Mark had to do something that wasn’t going to be popular, one way or another.

So they decided to water it down, but claim to have preserved the taste. It’s not as potent, but their email says, “We’ve made sure we didn’t screw up your whisky.” Until consumers can try the new iteration of Maker’s Mark and compare, they’re just reacting on principle, not fact. So the outrage online is unqualified.

Still, let’s be realistic:

  • Most consumers won’t notice or care. The taste differences, if noticeable, won’t be to most people because they mix bourbon. Most bourbon drinkers won’t notice because they’re not complex-palate, taste savorers. For probably 80 percent of the current drinkers of the brand, this change will make little difference.
  • The 20% of Maker’s Mark fans (I’m estimating) who do have complex palates and sip the bourbon to savor the flavor will be comprised of two groups: One that tastes a difference. The other that doesn’t but claims they do. Either way, both will be mad about it and probably switch brands until they forget about the change or realize they’re being silly.
  • There will be a very small number of people who will boycot the brand or will decide that the 3% makes a difference and they’d prefer another bourbon. They’ll switch and that will be that. They’ll probably settle for Maker’s Mark when it’s the only real bourbon a bar serves, but will otherwise pick another brand.
  • Many other distilleries are either doing, or considering doing, the same thing, but probably aren’t as forthcoming about it to their customers. So give Maker’s some credit here.

But that brings us back to the principle of the matter. Maker’s Mark defined the premium bourbon category. It opened the door for all these other premium and super premium bourbons and created a new category of the spirit. It has always been a brand founded on principle. It’s a bourbon so good,  you want to share it with your friends.

Now the company is sacrificing quality to sell more bottles. It has eschewed the family heritage the Samuels clan has always been so ardent to hold on to, despite it being owned by a huge corporate conglomerate. That attention to detail and quality is being tossed aside because they have an opportunity to sell more bottles of a lesser mixture rather than raising the price and saying, “Sorry. This stuff’s so good, we’re selling out.” The family name is all over the brand, but the decision here is clearly being made by the bottom line of the big company that actually owns it.

It’s the principle that matters. And by tossing principle out the door, the brand that defined premium bourbon, in many eyes will be premium no more.

As for me, I’ll probably still ask for Maker’s Mark when travelling. It’s more widely available than most other bourbons I enjoy, and less kick doesn’t much matter to me. I don’t drink to get drunk. If the taste is noticeably different, I may switch up my preference from time to time, but I’m not going to be melodramatic and boycot or whine about this change. That kind of rhetoric is about the person in question, not what they’re drinking. The change is what it is and I love Maker’s Mark, even if I don’t like what this decision means from a principle perspective.

The brand will recover from this just fine. They’re too big not to. But the passion many have for it will begin to wane. And that’s too bad.

February 9, 2013

  • http://twitter.com/mvolpe Mike Volpe

    Agreed! The message is “we’re watering it down to make more money” is fine, but it is in conflict with their brand and they will lose a little bit of the specialness. They should have also lowered prices by 3% at least to keep with the theme of what they are saying.

    How much does a 3% drop in alcohol really increase the volume they can produce? They make it sound like they need to increase production by 20-50% or more, but I don’t see how this change gets them a solution to the stated problem. Seems like something else is going on.