Maker’s Mark Waters Down Its Whiskey, and Anger Rises

The pioneering distillery is lowering the alcohol content of its bourbon in a bid to keep up with surging demand. But will it turn off the very drinkers who made it successful?

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John Sommers II / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Fans of Maker’s Mark whiskey have a message for the company that has brought them their favorite bourbon in trademark red-wax-sealed bottles for nearly 60 years. They’d like it neat, please. Maker’s Mark, based in Loretto, Ky., announced over the weekend that the company would begin watering down its iconic whiskey in order to boost supply. The response was lightning fast and deeply felt. A representative response on Twitter:

The addition of water will also mean the bourbon will contain almost 7% less alcohol, making it an 84-proof whiskey instead of the 90 proof it’s been bottled at since the distillery began selling its bourbon in 1959.

Alba Huerta, general manager of the nationally renowned cocktail bar Anvil in Houston, Texas, said the news left her dismayed. “I spent all day yesterday talking about this on Twitter when it exploded,” she says. “I am afraid they are diluting their brand.”

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“Maker’s reputation in my bar is pretty high class. When someone walks into Anvil and don’t recognize a lot of the labels, they are likely going to turn to Maker’s. It’s always been a very approachable whiskey — but it does have character.”

The change in proof could alter that, she said, and will certainly make her less likely to use Maker’s in the craft cocktails Anvil is known for. “When you are building a cocktail, you really reach for a higher element of proof as a backbone to stand up against the dilution and other ingredients in the cocktail. A lower proof really makes a significant difference.”

In an interview with TIME, Maker’s Mark chairman emeritus Bill Samuels Jr. — whose father created the bourbon’s unique recipe in 1954 using red winter wheat instead of rye — insisted that drinkers won’t notice the difference. The idea originated with Samuels’ son, Maker’s Mark chief operating officer Rob Samuels. (The company is still family run, although it’s owned by Beam Inc., which also owns Jim Beam bourbon and Courvoisier cognac.) When Rob suggested the change last year, Bill Jr. said he was slow to agree. “Rob asked me about six months ago, ‘What would you think about a proof reduction?'” Samuels tells TIME. “I said it has to meet our taste guidelines. Our commitment is to our customers — and we really have a close relationship with them — which is why there has been so much more noise with this than with normal brands. So he had a couple bottles of the new proof made, one for me and one for him. That became our nightly cocktail.”

The elder Samuels said he drinks his Maker’s just like his own father Bill Samuels Sr. did — on the rocks or in a Manhattan. And after more than 30 days of nightly tastings, both he and his son agreed that the lower proof tasted just like Maker’s is supposed to. “I was completely convinced,” he says.

(MORE: Is the Bourbon Boom for Real?)

Rob adds: “The taste is the same and the process that influences the taste is exactly the same.”

That’s because the more alcohol that is in a whiskey the more your taste buds are dulled when drinking it, the elder Samuels said. Reducing the alcohol by volume means that the flavor can be more diluted and yet come across as just as strong in the drinker’s mouth and nose, according to Samuels.

Most Maker’s fans haven’t been able to put those assertions to the test yet. The new version won’t hit shelves for another two weeks or so, depending on where drinkers live, the company said.

Still, Houston’s Huerta isn’t alone among bourbon experts sweating the change. “Will Maker’s Mark sell more bourbon? Probably so,” says Joy Perrine, co-author of The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book and a Louisville, Ky., bartender for nearly 40 years. “Many people won’t notice. But will it damage its standing among people who love Maker’s Mark and drink only Maker’s Mark — and there are plenty of those people? I think it will.”

Adding water to bourbon changes its profile, she said, and it’s easy enough to see why. “Do an experiment: pour yourself four shots of bourbon” adding either no water or a different amount of water in each — and see what happens. “No ice, nothing else. Give it a stir and let it sit for five or 10 minutes and taste them. Make notes. Come up with your own opinion.”

Each will taste differently, she said.

Bill Samuels Jr. has spent his entire career trying to get more people to love his father’s whiskey, and he’s built much of the company’s success bar by bar, traveling the country for his father to meet bartenders in America’s largest cities. The company sold 250 cases of whiskey in 1959; last year, it sold 1 million.

(MORE: What Are You Drinking? Results from Zagat’s Debut Mixology Survey)

In the past, the company has been able to tinker with its aging process to keep its supply in sync with demand. “For the last 40 years, my job has been to be the guardian around this place,” he tells TIME, “and the old man was insistent that our first job, second job and third job was product consistency. He didn’t want to see any wandering around with the taste profile.” He adds, “I signed off on every batch.”

Bourbon drinking has been booming in the past decade in America and abroad, fueled in part by the craft-cocktail craze but also by the dozens of new small-batch bourbons that have come on the market in the wake of Maker’s Mark’s success. The surging demand caught even Bill Samuels Jr. by surprise — “This is the first time I’ve been this wrong,” he says — and altering the aging of the whiskey, from about seven years to just under six years, is no longer enough to keep up.

However, Rob Samuels notes that switching to a lower proof is a tweak no different to changing the aging — one that will affect the strength of the bourbon but not its taste. “And taste is what we have always gone by,” he says.

The proof, so to speak, will be in the pouring. Huerta, who is set to open a bourbon bar in Houston this year that will feature up to 150 bourbons — if they are available — said she’s worried that Maker’s, which has always been a trendsetter in the industry, is setting a dangerous precedent.

“It’s been difficult to get Maker’s for the last several months, supply has been so tight,” Huerta says. “And other distilleries are in the same position as Maker’s, without enough product to go around. But with this decision, I fear that dilution will become the solution for other distilleries too.”

“I’d rather wait six months and fight to get the whiskey I want than to put something on my shelf that is inferior.”

MORE: Whiskey Restores Sight in Man Blinded by Vodka

36 comments
Koelling03
Koelling03

they cut it from 109 proof to 90 proof with water before it's bottled....Saw this on the show how it's made today......

tgm404
tgm404

I think it says volumes that their first instinct wasn't to make more product, but rather to water down their product, and sell it at the same price.

tgress82
tgress82

Hmmmm....found a bottle of Makers Mark 90 proof on sale for three dollars off yesterday (2/15/13) at a liquor store in Lenexa, KS. So, if demand is outstripping supply, how could this bottle be on sale? (btw, I bought three of them.) Something doesn't add up here.

JeffRoberts
JeffRoberts

First off do research before you write an article. I thought a writer at time would do this. It is decreasing only 3% in content. It is currently 90 proof or 45% al. Content. Proof is international measurement. It is just double al. Volume. So 84 prf is 42%. 45-42=3 not seven.

TimSlater
TimSlater

The reason for watering down an iconic brand of whiskey (and my favorite Manhattan) has nothing to do with taste or supply or the government. They're adding water to make it less expensive and to increase brand penetration, and I find the excuses and spin put on the decision by the family insulting in the extreme. I'm changing brands and never looking back.

MikeBaraniecki
MikeBaraniecki

The one question that was not asked in the article is "Why?" I would have asked Mr. Samuels why he decided to reduce the alcoholic content by 7%. I think the answer may lie more with the government than he is willing to say. It makes no sense to change the volume of a popular bourbon when all you have to do is increase the supply. Why was this simple question never asked????

ChristopherScott
ChristopherScott

I'm rather amused at the notion of Makers Mark being in low supply.  I could go buy 10 bottles of the stuff today, probably in one store.  Go out and see if you can find yourself a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle and then come tell me about whats hard to find.

dragoonjefy
dragoonjefy

Other big brands are constantly scaling back due to economics, lack of product, etc.. Doritos, Tostitos, and Fritos now contain 20% less product in the bag (same price) as they did in 2009, and most consumers don't think twice before making the purhcase.  Several drink companies have gone from 20oz to 16ox or 16oz to 12oz and still charge the same amount..  There is a big difference between reducing your product's offering size and reducing the quality of your product...

bbcorno
bbcorno

Of course he's going to say that we won't taste the difference. The only way to sell a bad decision is to convince yourself and others that it's a good decision.

CraigSu
CraigSu

What the heck? Raise your price if necessary, but don't water down your product! Come on.

LesHutton
LesHutton

This is a bad idea. Raise the price. Produce a second label. Expand capacity. Anything but lower the quality of your wonderful product.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

One does wonder why they don't simply raise the price.  After all, that's how supply and demand are supposed to work.  With the extra revenue, they can expand operations to meet the demand, and lower price again if the demand falls off.  People would often rather pay a dollar or three more for something they want than pay the same price for what they think will be an inferior product.

I know this thing is "family owned" but you would think at least the Beam folks would have better marketing advisors.

ToddAlband
ToddAlband

They should lower their prices since they are basically just selling you some water! This sounds really shabby. Hopefully the negative publicity won't hurt their brand image.

pga5f
pga5f

Maker's announced they are making the change to solve a low supply problem.  If this is true, why didn't announce a date when they are going to add the 3% back in??? Or that the product will cost 3% less?  If I want to add water to my bourbon, I will do it myself.  These guys are just greedy and don't have the decency to be honest with their customers.

BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

Typical American mentality . . .sales over substance. Its better to water it down and dilute the product then to simply make more. Here is another idea . .raise the price!!! Can you imagine Ford having a popular car and to sell them faster they simply sell them with 3 wheels instead of 4?

EeZeEpEe
EeZeEpEe

Interesting if people will actually be able to taste the difference. Also proof and alcohol percent are different. The almost 7 proof less is actually around 3%.

Lindenberger
Lindenberger

@JeffRoberts Hi Jeff. Thanks for reading. But you're conflating two different measures: The percent alcohol is being reduced by 3 percentage points, but the amount of alcohol in the bottle will be reduced by 6.7 percent. In other words, that's the difference between something being 45 percent of the total and 42 percent of the total. 


dhew
dhew

@TimSlater Interesting take, but there is actually a supply shortage of bourbon in the world right now. And it's not difficult to see why. Think about it, Makers uses bourbon aged around 6 years or more. That means the supply we have today was decided at least 6 years ago and, clearly, today's demand was not forecast correctly. 

With the relatively recent explosion of interest in this category, demand has increased across the board in a very short time frame. So 6 years ago no one was thinking "I bet 2012/2013 is going to be a big year for bourbon." And by the time they had realized it actually was, it was too late to do anything about it.

And it's not just Makers...just about everyone is in this situation. There are very few contract bourbon makers in the US, and even fewer with stockpiles of aged bourbon (and even if they had a bit or it stored away, it wouldn't be enough for a mass market brand to use. And even if it could be enough, using it would likely change the taste profile enough that consumers would notice).

So, the reality is that most of the supply is owned by the big brands, which obviously are keeping that supply for their own use, hopefully avoiding the same fate Makers is realizing now.


But it's not all bad news. it's likely all of these brands have already ramped up production. Which means 5-6 years down the road there will likely be an oversupply of bourbon, resulting in lower prices and new brands and innovations. So I wouldn't jump ship just yet.

TimHarrington
TimHarrington

Interesting.  A few years ago Jack Daniels watered down its Black Label to 80 proof and it did not get nearly the attention.I complained to the company and promptly switched from Jack Daniels to Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark.

Looks like I will be dropping Makers too.  This is all about money.  Jack Daniels answered my complaints by saying that had lowered the proof "because that's what its drinkers wanted"  I don't remember being surveyed on that...

Lindenberger
Lindenberger

 Hi Mike -- that's just the thing, though. You can't just "increase the supply" as simply as it seems. Their bourbon sits for six years or so before it can be sold.

So, if you are running out, you can bottle it before it's ready (2 years is minimum by law), you can buy nearly ready bourbon from other distilleries and cut it with your stock (something Maker's has never done) or you can put less of it in each bottle and make up the difference with water, which is essentially what they are doing here. 


KimberlyLancasterBirch
KimberlyLancasterBirch

They have a second label, it is called Maker's 46. The person who owns the bar that they interviewcd for the article  should consider it, 46 is 94 proof and is delectable.

StevenReedSr.
StevenReedSr.

I think the BEam folks may have had more to do with this decision than they are willing or able to say, cannot see why you would willingly lower the quality of your product, then announce it to the public unless you were actually against the decision and wanted the public to react to show the real decision makers how wrong they really were.

ShoshoneCreek
ShoshoneCreek

@DeweySayenoff The smart strategy and operations decision would be to create a 2nd label with the lower ABV and lower price and maintain the "original" for those with the extra nickel.  It's not clear if the market is hooked to the 45% ABV or the flavor.....so give 'em both.  This would increase output by around 5% within existing capacity.

ToddAlband
ToddAlband

@DeweySayenoff in effect, it. Is a price hike. Give the customers less but still charge them for it.

Lindenberger
Lindenberger

@EeZeEpEe thanks for reading but no the reduction in alcohol in each bottle is 6.7 percent. That's the difference between 45 percent alcohol and 42 percent alcohol by volume.

dhew
dhew

@Lindenberger FYI, there is actually no minimum age requirement for bourbon. Bourbon, by TTB rules, must be aged (in new, charred, american oak barrels), but not to a certain age (and not in a certain geographic area, either). This is a common misconception.

danielayoung1
danielayoung1

From what I understand, water is normally added to whiskey when it is removed from

the barrel for bottling.   If that is true, then you have an instant increase in supply when

you decide to water it down.

KimberlyLancasterBirch
KimberlyLancasterBirch

Jim Beam makes a whole lot more than the two products that Maker's Mark produces for them. I don't think they really had a hand in this. I think bourbon in general has been getting more popular in recent years. Maker's Mark is an excellent top shelf bourbon and has increased in popularity in the last decade since I first discovered it. Through facebook and The Bourbon Trail, it has really become a popular bourbon. Amazingly, it is still made by the same family, in the same place where it has been made for years. In essence, it is still a separate entity from the Beam company.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@Lindenberger But it's accurate to say it's 3% less alcohol BY VOLUME, which is what proof refers to in the first place and what EeZ was apparently talking about, and what the story relates to.

No one talked about the percentage of difference between 45% and 42%.  They were talking about the ABV difference mentioned in the story.

dhew
dhew

@KimberlyLancasterBirch True. But Jack Daniel's is actually produced the same way as "bourbon" and could, technically, be "bourbon" if they didn't pass the final product through their charcoal filter. The charcoal adds flavor and color to the bourbon, which is not allowed if you want to call something "bourbon." 

So Jack Daniel's "invented" a new category called "Tennessee Whiskey" which, technically, is not a recognized category (at least by TTB standards). Obviously Jack Daniel's exists so "Tennessee Whiskey" is a very real thing, it's just not a regulated spirit type like bourbon or "canadian whisky" is.

dhew
dhew

@Lindenberger @dhew Thanks for the reply and, by the way, the article in the first place!

Very true that great bourbon can be found all over (well, at least all over the US...otherwise it would not be bourbon!). And you are correct that it must be aged at least 2 years to be called "straight" bourbon. But non-straight bourbon, the kind the majority of people drink, has no age requirement. See 27CFR5.22 "Standards of Identity" (link below. This section is more appropriate as it describes what the actual spirit consists of, as opposed to how it can be labeled).

I actually work for a distillery that deals with innovative ways to improve spirits, young bourbon being our "showcase" product and best seller. So I deal with these codes almost everyday. It's a blast sorting through these regulatory hoops!

But Huerta is right, this is just the start of things to come. There is a shortage of bourbon aged about 2-3 years (the most common age used in mass market brands) throughout the industry that we are just starting to see signs of. So I imagine we will see more retail supply problems at the least and proof reduction ("letting down" as we like to say) or disappearance of additional brands at worst.

Either way, it is inevitable and bound to ruffle some feathers. 

http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=0b1336cf26cbf0cd359ebd43d02b8706&rgn=div5&view=text&node=27:1.0.1.1.3&idno=27#27:1.0.1.1.3.3.25.2

KimberlyLancasterBirch
KimberlyLancasterBirch

Maker's Mark used normally ages its bourbon for seven years. That isn't an age requirement by law, but by the company.

Lindenberger
Lindenberger

@dhew @Lindenberger Very true about the geographic boundaries. Kentucky tried to get rules passed through the Congress that would require 'Bourbon' to be from there, but (unsurprisingly) wasn't able to convince enough senators to agree. I've had great bourbon from Colorado, actually. (apparently, about 95 percent of bourbon is still made in Kentucky, where there are more barrels aging than there are people.) 

The rules governing aging statements are complex. You can find there below. But it must be at least 4 years if Maker's wants to label itself as Kentucky straight bourbon without a fixed year. They could go as low as two, but would have to change the label. 

http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp=&SID=17a85abe8993bf4c23844310db029951&r=SECTION&n=27y1.0.1.1.3.5.25.12

Lindenberger
Lindenberger

@DeweySayenoff @Lindenberger I understand the distinction you're making, and thanks for weighing in. I'm just adding that 84 proof has about 7 percent less alcohol in the bottle than a 90 proof liquor. So the statement in the story "will contain almost 7 percent less alcohol" is correct. Another way of looking it at a bottle that sees its alcohol content reduced from 45 percent of the total to 42 percent of the total, just lost about 7 percent of its alcohol.