Wow, Maker’s Mark drinkers. All I can say, is: Overreact much?
By now, most people who care about this sort of thing are aware of the firestorm that erupted Feb. 9 when Maker’s Mark announced it would reduce the alcohol by volume of its bourbon from 45 percent to 42 percent, or from 90 to 84 proof. Bourbon drinkers took to Twitter and Facebook to decry the move, and bloggers ranted that Maker’s Mark was “watering down” its bourbon. So vehement was the backlash that a little over a week later, a chastened Maker’s Mark announced that it would reverse its decision and keep its whiskey at 90 proof.
“If you tremble with indignation at every injustice,” said Che Guevara, “then you are a comrade of mine.” Of course, he was speaking of overthrowing brutal, corrupt dictatorships rather than resisting the tyranny of a smidgen of liquor. But whatever. I’m hoping to soon see an update of the old revolutionary T-shirt, with a Maker’s Mark activist in a beret in place of Che.
I have been asked about this matter, and here is my take: Maker’s Mark, you are really stupid. But Maker’s Mark fans who are frothing at the mouth, you might be even stupider. If only such outrage could be channeled and directed toward something truly meaningful. Maybe like, say, stopping gun violence, fixing deteriorating schools or helping people fight their way out of poverty?
First of all, if you’re going to scream and cry over a dilution of Maker’s Mark, why aren’t we talking about how much the product is already watered down from the time it is distilled to when it gets bottled? A bourbon can be distilled up to 160 proof and can go into the barrel at anywhere from 105 to 125 proof. That’s a long way down to the 90 in the bottle. That’s why most whiskey aficionados seek out 100-proof-plus bottlings. If you cared about proof, you’d have already graduated from Maker’s to, say, Weller Antique 107, a higher-proof wheated bourbon.
Second, if you are the typical Maker’s Mark loyalist, you probably enjoy sweeter, rounder bourbon and are not an aficionado who has long since moved on to “craft” or “premium” whiskeys. In which case, I would like to observe a blind taste test in which you try to discern the 90-proof offering from the 84-proof. After all, there have been occasional investigative reports of less-than-reputable bars filling an empty Maker’s bottle with a cheap rotgut whiskey and getting away with it for years.
“It comes off the still at 130 proof. Yes, bourbon is watered down, check.” That was the nonplussed response of Dave Pickerell over the whole debacle. Further, he says, “if you drink Maker’s Mark on ice or with water or in a cocktail, you won’t notice a difference.”
I called Pickerell when the controvery blew up. That’s because for 14 years, until 2008, he was the master distiller at Maker’s Mark. That means Pickerell is the guy who made the whiskey in the bottles that are now sitting on store shelves. And he was involved in the decisions that left the company running low on supply, the reason for the proposed drop in proof.
Maker’s Mark is not the first iconic American whiskey to face an angry backlash. In the late 1980s, Jack Daniels lowered its proof from 90 to 86. And then again, in 2002, the distiller dropped it all the way down to 80. Although a softer Jack Daniels might have betrayed its rock-and-roll reputation, it hardly hurt the brand’s sales in the long run.
What corporate fiascoes like these illustrate is just how tricky the whiskey business can be. Maker’s Mark, while it doesn’t declare an age, usually blends bourbons that are about six years old. That requires making supply-and-demand decisions many years in advance of sales. Sales of bourbon rose 14 percent in 2011 and 15 percent in 2012.
“I wish we’d made more. But who could have forecasted that kind of growth in a recessionary period?” Pickerell wonders.
That’s not his concern anymore. For the past few years, Pickerell has been consulting on smaller whiskey start-ups by microdistillers, including his WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey (selling about 5,000 cases a year) and Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon (about 1,000 bottles). The number of small distillers has more than doubled in the past decade, and Pickerell projects to have a hand in about 25 percent of the burgeoning U.S. craft whiskey market.
However, it will surely be a long time before he finds himself in Maker’s Mark’s shoes. The entire craft spirits category sold about 750,000 cases last year. Maker’s alone sold over a million cases.
In the end, the fact that Maker’s Mark won’t change its proof still doesn’t solve its supply problem, and Pickerell says the company has limited options.
It can stop selling the product overseas, which is not likely, considering there has been a federally funded effort to promote American whiskey in Asia (which you might have heard is a huge, game-changing market). It can use younger whiskeys in the blend, which truly would change the taste. It can institute “rolling outages,” meaning some loyal fans won’t be able to find the brand. Finally, Maker’s could just jack up the price.
In any of the likely scenarios, those aggrieved fans shouting on social media aren’t going to be any happier.