Six days ago, we joined the chorus  of Maker’s Mark fans who lamented the news that the producers of Kentucky’s most famous Straight Bourbon Whisky had decided to expand production by watering it down; thereby reducing its alcohol content. The wailing and gnashing of teeth could be heard all the way from San Francisco to New York, and apparently, to Loretto, Kentucky, where this elixir of the gods is made.
We can now report that Bill and Rob Samuels—the Maker’s makers—have heeded the pained cries of their customers, and, mirabile dictu!, have decided to leave well enough alone. Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky will remain at 90 Proof, as creator T. W. Samuels, Sr., intended, more than 50 years ago.
Earlier this week, Bill Samuels posted this plea for understanding to his web site:
Thanks for your feedback!
A lot of people took the time to share their thoughts regarding our recent announcement. We always appreciate open and honest conversation about Maker’s Mark and we’ve gotten plenty of feedback, both supportive and otherwise. Because there are so many comments, it’s hard for an old guy like me to respond, particularly 140 characters at a time. Now that I’ve had time to compose my thoughts, please allow me to try to answer most of the questions we’re hearing.
And by the way, I asked Rob if I could write this response since many people have wondered if I’m on board with the decision to lower the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) level. I am, and here’s why.
First, it’s important to understand that our primary focus now and for the past 50 years hasn’t changed. It’s product quality and consistency, batch-to-batch, year-to-year, with the primary measure of that consistency being the unique Maker’s Mark taste profile. That’s all that truly matters in the end.
Since we’re a one-brand company that’s never purchased bourbon from other distillers when supplies are short, forecasting is very difficult. Over the years, our one variable that helps us avoid market shortages has been the age of the whisky in the Maker’s bottle. That range is between five years nine months and seven years. Because Maker’s Mark is aged to taste, Dad never put a specific age statement on the bottle. It wasn’t the age that mattered; it was the taste, the quality and the consistency.
Some people are asking why we didn’t just raise the price if demand is an issue. We don’t want to price Maker’s Mark out of reach. Dad’s intention when he created this brand was to make good-tasting bourbon accessible and to bring more fans into the fold, not to make it exclusive. And, with regard to the price, the value of Maker’s Mark isn’t set by alcohol volume. It’s about the quality of the recipe and ingredients that go into it, all the handcrafting that goes into the production and how it tastes.
Some of you have questioned how we reduce the alcohol content. The fact is, other than barrel-strength bourbons, all bourbons are cut with water to achieve the desired proof for bottling. This is a natural step in the bourbon-making process. Maker’s Mark has always been made this way and will continue to be made this way.
As we looked at potential solutions to address the shortage, we agreed again that the most important thing was whether it tastes the same. The distillery made up different batches that Rob and I tested every evening over the course of a month. Every batch at 42% ABV had the same taste profile that we’ve always had. Then, we validated our own tastings with structured consumer research and the Tasting Panel at the distillery, who all agreed: there’s no difference in the taste.
For those of you who have questioned if the supply problem is real, I can assure you that it is. While not every part of the country has seen shortages yet, many have, and the demand is continuing to grow at a pace we’ve never before experienced. While we are investing today to expand capacity for the future, by producing 42% ABV Maker’s Mark we’ll be able to better meet our ongoing supply issues without compromising the taste.
Ultimately, all I can ask is that you reserve judgment until you actually taste the whisky, like I did. If you can make it down to the distillery, we’re doing tastings every day with the 42% ABV whisky to give you a first-hand opportunity to try it for yourself. If you can’t make it to the distillery, please give it a try when it gets to your city. And please write me back at that point. I want to hear what you think.
In the meantime, I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to write us a note. It shows that you care about Maker’s Mark, and that’s what we’ve been striving for over the past 50 years. I hope you’ll give us the chance to continue earning that devotion and allow us to prove that we didn’t screw up your whisky. All the best.
Bill Samuels, Jr.
But today, appearing to cave under the pressure of a multitude of irate Bourbon lovers, the father and son team posted the following apologia pro delinquimus:
You spoke. We listened.
Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.
You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.
So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.
The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker’s Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you’d even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we'll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery.
Your trust, loyalty and passion are what’s most important. We realize we can’t lose sight of that. Thanks for your honesty and for reminding us what makes Maker’s Mark, and its fans, so special.
We’ll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created. Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.
As always, we will continue to let you know first about developments at the distillery. In the meantime please keep telling us what’s on your mind and come down and visit us at the distillery. It means a lot to us.
Bill Samuels, Jr
Chief Operating Officer
There you have it, whiskey lovers. The people have spoken. Another NEW COKE fiasco has been averted, God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world.
But wait. I can’t leave you with this momentous news, without sharing a little personal insight. The last time I spoke with Bill Samuels, was at his lovely home, on the grounds of the Maker’s Mark Distillery, at Loretto, Kentucky. It was at one of his wickedly lavish Derby parties, and Bill was dressed up in an Elvis costume; complete with rhinestone sunglasses and paste-on sideburns. I shook his hand, and he replied, “Thank yuh. Thank yuh vurry much!” I recall thinking at the time, “This guy is a true marketing genius!”
So, dear reader, I leave you with the question: Did the Samuels—pere et fils—really intend to water down their prized Bourbon Whisky, or did they gin up millions of dollars in free publicity with the slickest marketing ploy since “Where’s the beef?” We report, you decide.