Maker’s Mark is having what people in the PR business like to call “an opportunity.” My first reaction was to call it “getting caught with your pants around your ankles and trying to spin a story that a bee had flown down your undies.” Why would Maker’s announce that they were reducing the percentage of alcohol in their bourbon from 45 percent to 42 percent (90 proof to 84 proof), cause an uproar and then reverse the decision within days?
What happened is that over the last two years, whiskey drinking has taken off. We’re not a vodka highball culture anymore! Demand for bourbons, including Maker’s Mark, has risen faster than production — here and internationally. Why? Well, whiskey and bourbon (a whiskey made with at least 51 percent corn mash instead of another grain) are barrel-aged, so you would’ve either needed a crystal ball to see this demand coming or the magic ability to turn back time about eight years and get more whiskey in the barrel.
Many whiskies are blended from barrels that various distilleries produce. Maker’s isn’t — they use their own distillate from start to finish. So when they were faced with scarcity, they couldn’t buy more whiskey from someone else to keep up their output. On his blog about American whiskey, Chuck Cowdery, author of Bourbon Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, writes of the plan to reduce the alcohol content, saying, “After aging, Maker’s comes out of the barrel at about 60 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) and water is added to bring it down to bottling proof. Maker’s will now add a little more water and a little less whiskey to every bottle.”
Maker’s taste-tested the lower proof and felt they were providing the same taste they’d always made.
But throwing my skepticism aside, the folks at the distillery responded very quickly to their customers. They reversed the decision. In an interview with drinkspirits.com, Bill Samuels, Jr., former president and CEO of Maker’s, apologized and said, “We are also a little embarrassed about being so stupid.”
Were they stupid? I spoke to Rich Harwood, the general manager at Mainstrasse’s Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, for his reaction.
“Maker’s Mark has always been really proactive as a brand,” Harwood says. “They started their Ambassador’s program to stay engaged with their customers; to promote their whiskey, sure, but also to get feedback. Most of the serious whiskey drinkers I’ve talked to aren’t mad about what happened. Most of them are saying, ‘Hey, at least they told us.’ ”
And that’s a good point. Maker’s can’t be — isn’t — the only distillery to be challenged by a spike in demand. I suspect that other brands are making changes that haven’t gotten the publicity that Maker’s did. Harwood agrees.
“Some are distilling at a higher proof, getting more alcohol out of each run and putting it in the barrel at a higher proof,” he says. “Then they get more bottles out of a barrel. But if you’re putting it in the barrel too hot — when the alcohol is too high — that’s going to affect the whiskey, and not in a good way. Others say they’re using old-fashioned production methods, which they do, but they don’t mention that 50 to 80 percent of what’s in each bottle doesn’t come from their production — it comes from a big distillery down the road that uses large-scale distilling. And they’re not telling their drinkers what they’re doing, like Maker’s did.”
Harwood had a chance to taste the 84-proof bottling side-by-side with the 90. Was there a big difference?
“My personal take on it? With 3 percent difference in alcohol, I’d say there was a 3 percent difference in taste,” he laughs. In other words, not much. And if you see any of those 84-proof bottles anywhere? Snatch ‘em up. They’ll definitely become collector’s items.
Let’s drink to Maker’s Mark, then, for being honest with their customers and telling them they were about to pull a switcheroo. Harwood’s cocktail suggestion, featuring the “smooth, sippin’ whiskey” character of Maker’s Mark, is the Embassy Royale.
Maker’s Mark bourbon
Drambuie (Scotch liqueur)
Splash of fresh lemon juice
Mix equal parts of all the ingredients with ice in a shaker, shake and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.