Sunday, February 17, 2013

Maker's Mark Make the Right Decision!!!!!!!!!!!

In my previous post of this past Friday, February 15th, I lamented the decision of Bill Samuels, Jr. (son of distillery founder), his son, Rob, and Beam Inc., to lower the ABV of Maker's Mark from 45% to 42%.

Well, guess what?  They changed their mind.  Why?  I have copied their letter here from their website:

You spoke. We listened.

Dear Friends,

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.


Rob Samuels                       Bill Samuels, Jr
Chief Operating Officer     Chairman Emeritus

.  .  .  .

It is never easy to admit to someone else you have made a mistake.  It is even more difficult to do so publicly.  Bill and Rob Samuels have done the right thing.  They listened to the consumer and probably to their hearts privately and made the right decision.  They are to be commended.  See!  There are good corporate citizens in the spirits industry and to them I raise a toast!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission. Please note the photograph at the top of this post was taken by Flickr member chrisjfry and is published with his permission pursuant to a Creative Commons License.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Watered Down Maker's Mark?

Look at the picture above.  Matter of fact, click on it and note the alcohol by volume (ABV).  What do you read?  45%.  Guess what?  It's about to be lowered to 42%.

USA Today, TimeForbes and other media outlets have reported that the minds in charge of Maker's Mark bourbon have decided to lower the ABV in order to keep up with market demand.  Yeah, you read that right.  They will run out of bourbon based on current demand, unless they add water to existing stocks.  But, it get's better.

Bill Samuels, Jr, (son of founder of the distillery) in an open letter on the bourbon's web site wrote:

"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." (emphasis added)

I read this letter and I felt like I was sitting in on a White House press conference or listening to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claim that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. 

"No Difference in Taste" 
That's a big claim.  I find it very hard to believe.  It has been my limited experience that the ABV of a whisky plays a significant role in the flavor profile.  Ideally, the elevated level delivers complexity, character and punch to a whisky.  Hence, lowering the ABV can make it delicate, subtle, but go too far and the spirit will be muted, flattened and maybe even TV test-pattern boring.  The crucial question for the master distiller is how low can he go?  Kinda like the question a limbo dancer faces.

The master distiller, Jim Rutledge, at competing Four Roses bourbon doesn't think the flavor will remain the same.  However, he does not think there will be a dramatic change either.  This is especially true if you consider that the majority of this bourbon goes into mixed drinks like the Manhattan and other cocktails, where other ingredients will further obscure the exact flavor profile.

But, for us who like our bourbon neat, I suspect we are in for disappointment.  I can't say for sure because I have not compared the two in a single tasting.  I plan to do that and will report about it in the future.

Potential Solutions to Address the Shortage
Let's discuss the "potential solutions to address the shortage" of Maker's Mark.  If they do nothing, they will sell out this year's stock.  Is that a bad thing?  It has happened to other bourbon producers like Knob Creek.  

Knob Creek simply sold all they had for that year and then turned the shortage into a marketing bonanza as Roger Dooley at Forbes Magazine pointed out.

Beam Global, the owners of Knob Creek (and Maker's Mark coincidentally) ran full page ads in the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers apologizing to their customers for running out of bourbon for 2009.  More was on the way in 2010, but the customer would have to wait said the ads as Knob Creek would not shorten the years it takes to create the nine year old bourbon.  In other words, if they dropped the 9 yr age statement, they could ramp up production and satisfy all the orders coming in.  But no, said the ads, we will not sacrifice quality.

The Knob Creek marketing campaign was clever and enormously successful.

When men or corporations behave oddly I always follow the money.  Does the conduct correspond with the possibility of making more money?  That's the question I ask myself.  Adding water to bourbon stocks means more is ready to bottle without years in a warehouse, and years in expensive barrels.

I guess what I am saying is that Bill Samuels, Jr, and the Beam group had a decision to make and my guess would be they opted for the most profitable one, at the risk of slightly sacrificing the quality of their remarkable bourbon.  Maker's Mark is very good bourbon.  Unfortunately, the decision is also permanent.  The solution of adding water to increase supply is not a temporary one.  Permanent my friend.  Why make it permanent if the shortage only concerns this year?  Or did they forecast a shortage in the upcoming years?  Who knows?

There were probably MBAs and CAs sitting around a dark wood boardroom table forecasting increased profits without a significant dip in sales because the only possible fall out might be among the small percentage of consumers who drink whisky neat.  Probably the vast majority of consumers of this bourbon enjoy it in Manhattans and other mixed drinks, and so they will not be changing their buying habits based on this decision.  Years ago Jack Daniels lowered their ABV from 86 proof to 80 proof, and they are still in business.  Maybe Jack Daniels fans miss the old 86 proof, but the shareholders are happy.

Jury is still out
Until I do a head to head challenge between the current Maker's Mark at 45% ABV and the soon to be released 42% , I can't say for sure that the flavor profile will suffer.  Maybe it will improve?  Just because a whisky is less robust, it does not mean it is less good.

I guess the point of this post is to say that Maker's Mark decision to lower the ABV may not be based upon an altruistic concern for maintaining supply of its fine spirit to the public.  I suspect the real reason has to do with profit.  And profit, is not a dirty word, so long as it is not sacrificing quality.


Jason Debly

P.S.!!!!!!!!!!!!!  This story took an interesting twist.  For an update to the latest news on what is up with Maker's Mark ABV issues click here.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2014. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Please note the following photo credits: (1) Maker's Mark in hand taken by Flickr member: Adie Reed. Check out her great site for more photos: She has graciously granted a Creative Commons license which permits its reproduction on this blog; (2) Picture of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad source is with no credit provided; (3) "Limbo Dance" photograph by Flickr member aneye4apicture and its reproduction here is pursuant to a Creative Commons License. (4)  Knob Creek advertisement widely available on the web and in print media.  All images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Evolution of Taste

It was 1977.  David was an exceptional teenager.  He was maybe 15.  I was 10.  Wherever he went, there always seemed to be a buzz. . . of conversation that is, not of the Cheech and Chong variety.

"David is reading Thomas Mann," one rather stout and bespectacled mother said to another in the driveway, as they watched approvingly while he cut across a well manicured lawn in the direction of downtown.  Headed to the library no doubt.  When I took a shortcut across the neighbor's lawn, in a furtive effort to get to school on time, all I heard was an angry yell.

"Death in Venice no less," chimed in the other, more slender mother with the Jackie-O hairdo, flared jeans and too much turquoise jewelry.

A few yards away, I was playing in a flower bed that was still awaiting flowers, as my parent's house was new construction.  I used that patch of earth as a sandbox.  Had my Deetail army men arranged in the dirt, where I staged battles between the Desert Rats and the Afrika Korps replete with my whistling sounds of bombs exploding and gunfire.

I noticed the stiff gazes of Betty and Wilma settle upon me, and one of them rolled her eyes skyward, probably not out of fear of incoming armaments.

. . .

A couple of years later, when I was about 15, I decided to better myself and be more like David.  After all, I wanted parents to talk about me in hushed and reverent tones too.  So, I stopped re-reading my favorite post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, The Tripods, and try my hand, or rather my mind, at Death in Venice.

I didn't understand it.  I read words on a page, but I couldn't understand what the author was trying to convey.  It was just one giant snorefest.  I tried some other tomes, like 1984, Animal Farm and Siddhartha with no success.  I quickly slinked back to John Christopher young adult novels, as well as the high octane/easy reading thriller works of Jack Higgins with great titles like: The Keys of Hell, Midnight Never Comes, The Last Place God Made.

Not much changed for me between the ages of 15 and 45.  Maybe I moved from Jack Higgins to Robert B. Parker.  I read all those Spenser novels and damn they were good.  Nice light brain candy.  They fed a need.  Work involved heavy reading and high stress.  So, when not at work, Mai Tai reading was the order of the day.

"Sex So Good . . . Your Neighbors Will Change Their Zip Code"

"15 Foods That Fight Fat"

"Strip Away Stress!"

Yeah, I still indulge in Krispy Kreme reading like "Men's Health," but lately something has changed.  I have a growing appetite for content with a little more fibre.  Maybe not as wholegrain and organic as  Death in Venice, but less formulaic and simple than the high-fructose corn syrup pulp my mind has been gorging on for the past twenty-five odd years.

So, recently I have been enjoying and even understanding some quirky short stories and essays that turn up in off-the-wall, hidden from public view, low circulation journals like:  The Believer MagazineMcSweeney's Quarterly, and Lapham's Quarterly.

McSweeney's Quarterly describes itself as a journal that at one point published only works of authors who had been rejected by other magazines.  What an attitude!  I like it.  Eventually they abandoned that strategy, but hey, to even go there is admirable.

. . .

Initially, my tastes in whiskies were exclusively devoted to the light, the sweet, the honeyed and super smooth.  There were no Hermann Hesse malts in my midst.  I placed an enormous premium on blended scotch, Canadian and Irish whiskies because they were smooth, not biting, and pretty much devoid of smoke and peat (elements that I found offensive).

I remember being at a whisky festival many years ago and taking a big gulp of Laphraoig.  I started to gag and my eyes watered while I did my best not to projectile vomit all over the display booth.  Given that experience, no wonder I did not like peat, smoke, and iodine elements.

Anyhow, I was thinking that was the worst stuff.  Matter of fact, at that festival, I tried a number of single malts and they all were just 'awful' in my novice opinion.  Too strong, rough, etc.  Ardbeg was 'poison.'  So, I spent the rest of the evening bear hugging blends and was happy to note there were no long line-ups of patrons for Famous Grouse, Chivas, Johnnie Walker and others.

The first scotch whisky to hook me was Johnnie Walker Black Label.  I was playing cards and wanted something to drink, anything but beer.  Beer uncomfortably puffs me up and gives me the munchies (not a winning combination for someone struggling with their weight and a body-type similar to John Belushi).  Someone said they had Johnnie Walker Black.  I said ok.  I loaded a tumbler up with ice and poured a double.  Let it sit while I played a few hands and then I took a sip.

I was hooked.  I was expecting something nasty, but that was not the case.  The ice had diluted the whisky such that it delivered a nice caramel, orange rind taste with a bit of smoke.  Wonderful.  A little sip went so far.  Put the glass down and continued to play.

Having had a positive experience with Black Label, I would buy it repeatedly for a few years.  It had punch, but with some ice, I could tame it to something I could enjoy.  I had a real aversion to strong tastes, and that is why ice played a big part of my early experience with whisky.

After a while I ventured on to other whiskies.  Bushmills with its light nutty flavors.  Cutty Sark's apples and limes, and then onto malty/grainy Famous Grouse.  Chivas Regal 12.  And then there was Teacher's Highland Cream.

Chivas and Teacher's were a bit of a revelation because they introduced a lot more texture and nuance to the flavor experience.  I was starting to enjoy the nip, the slightly coarse or unruly flavors.  Experimenting, I reduced the amount of ice from something resembling the polar cap to a single cube.  And then, I would run out of ice, too lazy to go upstairs from the basement for more, I began sipping neat and never looked back.

Transitioning from Teacher's and Chivas, I tried single malts for the first time.  Glenfiddich 12, Balvenie Doublewood 12, Macallan 12 and then Cragganmore.  Cragganmore 12 neat with maybe half a teaspoon of water unleashed the complexity of flavor I read about elsewhere, but for the first time understood.  Where blends seem to meld all the flavors together so nothing is dominating or distinct, Cragganmore was a single malt that was subtle but layered and woven.  Plus it was a wild honey fiesta with a dash of peat and smoke, which was and remains one of my favorite flavor profiles.

From Cragganmore, I moved onto Dalwhinnie, Oban, Highland Park and many others.  Eventually, I developed an appreciation of the Isle of Skye and Islay.  Developing an appreciation of smoke and peat bombs like Laphroaig took many years.  After spending a lot of time with powerful Speyside malts I was able to move on to Islay.  The key for me and Islay is to take the tiniest of sips.  A little goes a very long way.

. . .

So, my taste in scotch whisky has evolved from a passion for gentle, smooth, honeyed blends to include the smokiest briar patch fires lit on Islay.  But, a question remains.  Do I still like those first loves or are they like high school?  Happy you went, but glad you never have to return.  Let's look at those blends again.

Johnnie Walker Black - You're still the greatest of blends.  The gold standard against which I measure all the others.  Always in my cabinet.

Famous Grouse - I recently picked up another bottle of this sweet, malty, pencil shaving scotch.  It is far too grainy for my tastes now.  Can't stand it, and deep down there is a part of me that is really embarrassed forever being enthusiastic about this swill.

Chivas 12 -  I still like Chivas 12 and think it doesn't seem to get the street cred that Johnnie Black enjoys.  Chivas and my enjoyment of it has a lot to do with my mood.  It usually surprises me as to how good it is.

Bushmills (white label) - I haven't bought a bottle in ages, but it still is in my mind the ultimate starter whisky.  So, gentle and alluring, before you know it, half the bottle is gone and you are pouring out your heart to the bartender who has heard it all before.  Would I buy another bottle?  Maybe not, but I would never turn it down.

Cutty Sark - Oh my G-d this is simple stuff.  Pleasant enough, not bad, but I have moved on.

Teacher's Highland Cream -  Still love it as much as the first bottle.  Not much on the nose and what is there can be confused for a petrol barrel in Siberia, but the taste is like biting into a bacon and tomato sandwhich.  I always have this in the house.  My go-to comfort scotch.

. . .

Now, will I read some Thomas Mann or Robert B. Parker?  Hmm I think I will opt for the latter with a dram of Teacher's to keep me company.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Photo credits: Army men in sandbox photograph taken by Mike Sperlak, and used with his permission.  No reproduction is permitted without the express permission of Mr. Sperlak who holds all world copyright and intellectual property in said photograph.  Photograph of Johnnie Walker Black Label appearing at the top of this post. The photograph was taken by James Calvey and it is used here with his permission. No reproduction of his photograph is permitted without his consent. Mr. Calvey is the holder of all copyright to said photo. Check out more of his great work at his Flickr account.  Photograph of bottle of Bushmills taken by Flickr member Pedro.cali.  No reproduction permitted without obtaining permission of Pedro.cali.