My brother sent me a slightly panicked text message tonight around the time I got home from work this evening:
“Maker’s Mark news = crazy”
Being a big supporter of the brand and a “Maker’s Mark Ambassador” I had to respond…because I hadn’t heard anything.
Ryan proceeded to tell me that they were reducing the alcohol content by 6.6% (literally watering their Bourbon down to 84 proof from 90) to meet a shortage in supply/increase in demand (something that’s hard to forecast given the average Bourbon sits in an oak barrel for 5-6 years before hitting the shelves)
In all honesty, “watering down” Bourbon isn’t that big of a deal….in fact, Maker’s Mark comes out of the barrels after a 5-6 year slumber at around 110-130 proof and is immediately cut with water to get to that drinkable 90 proof mark.
The average Bourbon drinker won’t notice the change…moving from 90 to 84 proof probably won’t affect the taste in a material manner and at 42% alcohol by volume, it’s still going to get the job done. Jack Daniels lowered their proof back in 2004 to 80 for almost the same reason so there’s already a precedent for it. I would even wager to guess that if it wasn’t for the press coverage Maker’s Mark is receiving, you probably wouldn’t have ever known the difference.
So why is it such a big deal?
Maker’s Mark made a promise to consumers over the last 6 decades of distilling Bourbon…in fact, it’s written on the side of their barrel:
“Maker’s Mark is America’s only handmade Bourbon whisky – never mass produced. Each individual batch is less than 19 barrels and this small quantity means we can be choosy about everything we use and everything we do to craft our whisky. That’s why we use the old-style sour-mash method. We start each new batch fermentation by using a little of the last, resulting in a more consistent product. We’re proud of our unique and full flavored handmade Bourbon, and so we add our Maker’s Mark “S IV” to each bottle. Enjoy.”
Pay close attention to the last line “We’re proud of our unique and full flavored handmade Bourbon.”
Everything they do has been in the name of that pride…from the hand dipped bottles, the amazing copper pot stills, a double distillation process (not because it’s easier, but because it’s better), the awesome ambassador program, the beautiful historical landmark distillery and the fact that Bill Samuels (the now retired son of the founder and father of the current CEO) takes time to shake visitor’s hands and sign bottles for people who make the trek to the distillery.
Pride in their product.
Maker’s Mark had a choice to make in light of this impending shortage:
- Raise prices…curb demand with a price increase
- Compromise your product…open barrels that aren’t fully matured, blend with other Bourbons or….stretch your current run with water
There’s probably not a good solution to this problem…it just sucks. But of all the choices they could make, they went with the one which had the most potential to alienate their strongest asset. The not-so-average Maker’s Mark enthusiast.
In picking #1 you lose the short term battle for acquisition on the grocery store shelves over price. The battle for the customers you DON’T HAVE YET.
In picking #2 you lose the long term battle for advocacy, personal endorsement and standing up for what your brand has believed now going on 60 years. You lose the battle for the customers who already believed in you and were fighting in the trenches daily to bring more people to your side.
As a Maker’s Mark ambassador, Bourbon enthusiast and marketer, this is a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately, I have one remaining bottle of the current run…I’ll do my best to enjoy it but most likely be in the market for a new favorite Bourbon. It’s an unfortunate move…but one consumers are becoming ever more used to with public shareholders and wall street investors putting more and more short term pressure on the companies and brands we love.