Quartz broke the news over the weekend that Maker’s Mark is reducing the alcohol in its bourbon by three percentage points, from 45% alcohol to 42%, in order to keep up with rising demand. The story ignited a small firestorm as customers criticized Maker’s and its parent company, Beam Inc., for watering down the drink.
I heard from lots of whiskey drinkers on Twitter who had follow-up questions, so I posed them today to COO Rob Samuels, who prefers his Maker’s Mark neat, and his father Bill Samuels, who ran the distillery until 2011 and drinks his bourbon in Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and over ice. Here are highlights from the interview.
How much additional supply will be created by lowering the alcohol content in Maker’s Mark?
“Volume-wise, it’s not enormous,” Bill said. “It allows what Rob felt was an extra four years to fill the gaps that were causing us the biggest problems. The biggest ones are the bars and restaurants that have Maker’s Mark cocktails on their menus. We’re taking care of customers who have been with us for a long time.”
Is reducing the alcohol simply a matter of adding water?
Yes. Almost all bourbon brands “add water as it enters the barrel and as it leaves the barrel,” Rob said. Maker’s Mark will now just be adding just a little more.
“Rob’s grandfather did not like ostentatiousness,” Bill said, referring to Bill Samuels Sr. “It deliberately was not marketed as an image-transfer brand.” I pointed that out Maker’s Mark was once marketed under the slogan, “It tastes expensive…and is.”
Rob said that, yes, “for a period, it was a little more expensive than others,” but described Maker’s Mark as more a mid-market brand now. Jim Beam, owned by the same company, is a cheaper bourbon; Maker’s 46 is higher-end and higher proof. In that sense, lowering the proof of Maker’s Mark is diversifying the company’s selection of bourbon.
Pressed on the price issue, Rob said that distributors mostly control the pricing of Maker’s Mark but acknowledged, “Most years we’ve taken a modest price increase.” He also said the company is making investments to increase capacity.
What about other ways of increasing supply?
Bill said, “The one lever that we have had is age,” meaning that the bourbon could be aged in oak barrels for less time. But Maker’s Mark starts to taste too “grainy” when aged for less than six years, Bill said, so they couldn’t push it any further.
This question was submitted by Wired editor Ryan Tate, and I asked it word-for-word as representative of outraged customers: What will you do for a living after burning the American bourbon industry’s reputation to the ground and destroying your company?
“All we’ve asked is that folks keep an open mind until they taste,” said a somewhat chastened Rob.