It took 60 years for Maker’s Mark to create and burnish its image as a premium bourbon brand, and all of one day to put that reputation on the rocks.
By now I’m sure you have heard the controversy: One of Kentucky’s most beloved bourbons was facing a shortage. There simply was not enough product to go around. To many brands, this is the holy grail of business models. After all, as demand outstrips supply, your cachet rises, along with your cash.
But to Rob Samuels and father Bill Samuels Jr., who run the company, it was seen as an opportunity to remake its bread and butter. They announced a little over a week ago that they were lowering the alcohol content of Maker’s Mark from 90 proof to 84, while tinkering with the elixir to help it retain its signature flavor profile. The response was harsher than a shot of bad moonshine. Reaction from the media, connoisseurs and the general public alike was almost universally negative.
Yesterday the Samuels family announced it was reversing course and would go back to the original proof. Now, I’m not a fortune-teller by any means, but I can honestly say I saw this coming the instant the dilution announcement was made. You can argue about whether lower-alcohol whiskey tastes better or worse. In general terms, stronger bourbon tastes hotter and therefore, one could argue, less pleasant. But that’s not really the point. The point is, people don’t like it when you water down the products they’ve grown to love.
On the other hand, Maker’s Mark deserves accolades for listening to its public, swallowing its pride and changing its mind. My non-fortune-teller brain says its reputation will not suffer serious long-term damage.
Side note: My friend Randy Neely, co-founder of New West’s predecessor company, helped Maker’s Mark first achieve national prominence in the 1980s by landing articles in the Wall Street Journal, Delta Sky magazine and other publications.