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.


  1. There must be a mistake in all the stories about this, right? Am I missing something? I mean, they've been adding plenty of water to bring it down to the previous %46 already, right? It is column stilled after all (with colorant added, btw...)

    1. High ABV is not be all end all of whisky. As you know, what makes whisky great is not determined solely by a high abv.

      And yes, you are right that they had to add water to bring it down to 46%. The decision of how much water to add is one of the very important decisions of the master distiller. Add too much water, he/she risks losing out on great flavor complexity. Not diluted enough, it will be too strong and over power any delicate notes. So, deciding the ABV is part art, craft and of course business acumen because you want to sell a lot also.

      I guess the Maker's Mark people decided the lower abv will ultimately boost sales. I dont think the decision was made to improve flavor because they do not claim this at all.

      All I know is that at 46% it is delightful, and I am unsure if it will be the same delight at 42%. The other point of the post was I find it hogwash that the Maker's Mark people made this decision out of concern to maintain supply.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Appreciate your perspective on this Jason. I seldom drink bourbon so am likely to be affected, but imagine if the folks who make Lagavulin decided to water it down. Now that would be something to get exorcised about!

    1. Actually, your comment brings to mind another important point. It is my understanding that some Scotch whisky distilleries have a limited supply of output each year and when it is gone, it is gone. That may drive prices up, but hey that is the free market.

      I believe Oban is an example.


  3. What will be frustrating is when the lower-proof version is priced the same. I had read that they were doing this to maintain enough of a supply (apparently the emerging Asian markets have taken more of a liking to MM than had been anticipated). It'd be one thing if they were doing this just to keep it on shelves, but they're probably using the high demand as an excuse to produce more at a lower price and then charge the same. Which is all well and good from a shareholder's perspective, but ouch.

    I guess the jury's out for me until a price is announced.

    1. Bill Samuels, Jr., in his letter on the Maker's Mark website writes:

      "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."

      In other words, the price will remain the same in spite of the lowered ABV.

  4. Jason, I can't imagine drinking a thinner, narrower version of the already conservatively-infused Marks Mark Bourbon. Not a fan of their tepid style, not at any price, much less at their shelf level. However, given its market support over the years, Makers may have done their homework correctly again. Perhaps they have correctly gauged that few of its loyal followers will notice any difference at all, and even that some may like its lighter form even more. JK

    1. I think you are correct.

      Maker's Mark has become a very mainstream bourbon, unlike say Knob Creek or some of the Elijah Craig releases. So, knowing their market share is made up of casual consumers who put a premium on a gentle palate, making it even more gentle might please that market segment even more. The growth in market share may be greater than the attrition of serious bourbon fans.

      For me, I enjoy Maker's Mark. I think the fact that in the past the high abv of 45% was still delicate and refined was a testament to the great work of the distillery. To lower the ABV I fear may take away the layered complexity of this bourbon. As I said, the jury is still out till I get a bottle of the new stuff, but I will report on both once I do.


  5. Something worth remembering is that for both Maker's and Knob Creek, it's the same ownership. Beam Global. The exact same people felt it was better to water down one whisky, and keep another the same and allow sales to run out.

    Watering down just seems like a bad idea. That was how Four Roses nearly died, and now they make damn good bourbon. Well, they always did, they just didn't sell it except in Japan and some in Europe. But it was known as rutgut in America and is only now coming back. I mean, this is quite literally diluting the brand.

    Meanwhile, I don't actually drink Maker's, but I guess I care because I don't want the trend to catch on. Just look at the new Bunnahabhain and other Burn Stewart whiskies. They all got bumped up to 46%, non-chill filtered, and they're better for it. The extra thickness is clearly worth it.

    1. I hope it is not a trend, but it could become one with rising production costs like scarcity of wood, rising salaries, warehouse overhead, etc. We have seen Jack Daniels go this route a few years ago too.

      My personal theory is that a lot of these decisions are made by the bean counters that are trying to raise shareholder value or meet ever increasing artificial targets for sales, profit margins, etc. This is due to the fact that these brands we enjoy and love are not small family run businesses, but rather belong to multinational corporations.

      I agree about Bunnahabhain and have a bottle of the 12 coming up for review shortly.

  6. Hi Jason, it's worth mentioning that Buffalo Trace has already taken this route, in fact even worse, from 45 to 40 (though in all fairness they have reduced the price). I have compared the old and new bottling; it's not that the 40% version is worse, it's that the 45 version just tastes so much richer. Real shame.

    Cheers, Boris

  7. News Flash -- Maker's Mark has backed off and will not water down their product. Thanks for convincing them of the error of their ways Jason.

    1. Somehow I don't think my ramblings were the tipping point.

      As they put it, people spoke and they listened. They should be applauded for reversing their decision. This shows their commitment to their brand that we enjoy so much.

      Thank you for letting me know about this story.

      Hope all is well with your family.

  8. Jason, Our group pulled together a quick comparative tasting of wheated Bourbons: MM, M46, Larceny, Old Fitz 12y, WL Weller 12y (each under $30 here). I struggle to recall a time when Makers Mark adequately satisfied a group of experienced tasters less. It's not aimed at the Bourbon lover, not any we know. Clearly, it is a legit product which sells like mad, but so do soda crackers. MM is the Jordan Vineyards Cabernet of the Bourbon industry: a gateway product not likely to satisfy the curious for long. It failed to meet our minimum requirements for Bourbon enjoyment, made clear among these bottles. May I boldly suggest your group try this same instructive experiment and report back ? JK

  9. At least Maker's Mark didn't blend their bourbon with Jim Beam and call it Maker's Mark Pure Bourbon. I mean who would be stupid enough to try that?