If you care at all about Bourbon (and even if you don’t), you probably heard the recent news from Maker’s Mark and their plan to lower the ABV (Alcohol By Volume) (USA Today, CNN) in their flagship bottle, which they later reversed.  Who cares?

Maker’s Mark is a Bourbon Whisky (which is to say it follows all the requirements of TTB’s Chapter 4 on Class and Type Designation) that’s made in Kentucky.  Part of that law states that Bourbon cannot be distilled above 80% ABV and cannot be bottled below 40% ABV; the biggest reason for both of those is flavor.  Bourbon is considered a ‘product of distinction’ in the United States and to make sure you recognize it as Bourbon when you taste it.  Those are some of the controls that keep the flavor somewhat in-line with other Bourbon whiskies.  Here’s the thing – If Bourbon is 40% ABV (or 45%, or 53% or anything else) in the bottle, what’s the rest?  Water!

Some whisk(e)y snobs out there will tell you that it’s sacrilege to put water in whisk(e)y – complete nonsense.  First, you should enjoy your whisk(e)y however you choose.  Second, water is used throughout the whisk(e)y-making process, including at the bottling stage.  Whisk(e)y-making is an exercise in reverse-engineering – first you choose how you want your whisk(e)y to taste, then you go through the steps to get it there.  A little more water, a little less water – does it still taste the way we want?  Then why does it matter what the number on the bottle says?  We’ll get back to that.

Maker’s Mark has always strived to be an approachable whisky (MM chooses to spell the Scottish way, with no ‘e’).  Bourbon can have up to 49% rye (or any other grain) as a part of their mash bill (or recipe); most have around 14% rye; Maker’s Mark uses none.  Their mash bill is approximately 70% Corn, 16% Wheat and 14% Malted Barley, making it a ‘Wheated Bourbon.’  Rye gives a bourbon (or any other whisk(e)y) spice; bigger flavor – with no rye, Maker’s Mark a lighter style that makes it the lager beer of the Bourbon world.

So why all the hub-bub?

The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath has a story about the origins of college football on TV and how nobody paid much attention to it until a producer at CBS decided to show a 30 minute documentary about the schools, the teams and the rivalry before a game decades ago; and viewership shot up.  By telling people what they didn’t know, it made them want to watch the outcome.  When Maker’s Mark came out and said they were changing something, throngs of people (including those that had never tasted MM before, others that have spoken ill-will about the product for years because it’s ‘mass produced,’ and still others that would have been completely content never knowing the difference because they don’t care much about the flavor anyway) cried out in horror.  By pulling back the curtain, you were being told something you didn’t know – and now needed to know the whole story.

Things change.  Materials used change.  Final products change.  Even in the spirit world, things change.  Early bottles of Stoli vodka had bold letters that listed it as “Russian Vodka” – today that tag simply says “Premium Vodka.”  Is it still Russian?  No.  Disaronno is still today considered a brand of Amaretto, but hasn’t been an amaretto in some time.  Did you hear about either of these changes in the media?  Was there public outcry over these?  Maker’s Mark mistake was not in changing the product, it was in how they released the info.

Maker’s Mark’s claim is that they tested both bottling strengths and there was no difference in flavor.  We’ll probably never know for sure.  Without question, releasing a statement on their plans gave the ‘whisk(e)y geeks’ of the world (from casual imbibers to ‘mixologists’ to the seasoned vets) something to complain about.  The reality is that most people that drink Maker’s Mark are either making it into a cocktail or drinking it with water (either at room temp or in frozen form) already, and few would have even noticed the change if they weren’t told outright.  Reducing the bottle ABV strength by the little amount they planned (a 3% reduction) would not have changed much.  If anything, by reducing the ABV there likely would have been more flavor (a test you can replicate at home by adding just a little water to your whisk(e)y).

I don’t buy Maker’s Mark’s story for why they planned to make the change.  The original note said they were reducing the bottling strength because of ‘supply issues.’  It is true that as the popularity of any whisk(e)y increases, the availability can go down (largely due to the aging process and needing to forecast sales several years out), which may be the case for a small Scottish distillery where even the shortest maturation times are often more than double that of your average bourbon, but with Maker’s Mark we’re talking about a column still product (as opposed to pot still, meaning easier to make more) matured for a relatively short time.  And – the growth of Maker’s Mark is no surprise.  They’ve been growing for years and have had plenty of opportunity to increase the production to meet their growing demand.

No, there are 2 other likely causes, and only time will tell which of the 2 led the charge here:

  1. Profit.  As these brands and companies grow, it’s not just their job to generate profit for their share holders (Maker’s Mark is owned by Beam Inc; yes that Jim Beam), but to ever-increase the profit year after year.  There are lots of creative ways to ‘maximize revenue’, including cutting expenses (like lay-offs).  By reducing the ABV in the bottle, the production cost goes down (and the amount of tax paid goes down) so profit goes up.
  2. Innovation.  A company that doesn’t innovate and stay fresh can die (look at Blackberry).  In spirits, it’s easy to innovate – mature in a different cask, add a flavor, change the ABV…  With a whisk(e)y, innovation is a little more difficult (again, because of the maturation time).  If Maker’s Mark is looking to add another marque to their collection, they need to start hoarding their supply now.

No matter what the root cause, we can all rest assured that prices for Maker’s Mark will be going up in the near future.

In some ways, I commend the Maker’s Mark family for being so forthcoming with the information.  It shows me that it’s not all numbers to them.  They didn’t hide behind a curtain but they did try to play it off as something that it wasn’t.  I’m also on-board with them not laying people off to help along their profits.  But, is the press they received around the planned change worse than the rumor mill would have been had they not let their own cat out of the bag?  We’ll never know.  Now with the reversal there are many questions in my head as to whether they even completely planned to make the change in the first place.  The whole thing may have been planned from the onset, giving themselves an out to raise prices.  The whole thing could have been a media play, an attempt to garner some points with certain customers; “We care what our people think so we’re not going to do what they don’t want us to do.”  It also could have been a ploy to get people to look at the bottles and pay attention to ABV – like Budweiser’s ‘Born On’ date which, funny enough, they later dropped.

At the end of the day, Maker’s Mark is a staple in my whisk(e)y cabinet and should be in yours too.  They make a great, consistent, recognizable bourbon that will suit many occasions just fine – no matter what the proof.  Now won’t you enjoy a dram with me?