Updated at the bottom with a recent statement from Maker's Mark announcing it's reversing its decision. Originally posted at 9:25 a.m. on 2/11/13.
Making bourbon takes time. Years and years in fact. So when demand rises quickly, bourbon makers can't do much to react to that demand except start the process of making more bourbon and hope that demand is still as high when that bourbon is ready — 5, 7 or 23 years down the road.
At Maker's Mark, they've come up with a different solution. Over the weekend, word came out that Maker's Mark has decided to reduce the amount of alcohol in its whisky. In other words, they'll be adding more water to the cask strength bourbon than they had previously done. They claim the alcohol will be reduced by 3%, although this story in the Atlantic indicates that it's more like 6.7%. Maker's Mark blames increased demand, from the explosion of booze enthusiasm in the past couple of years worldwide. In other words, this is all our fault.
The reaction was not positive. On the brand's Facebook page, people have pretty much universally decried the move, one person comparing it to the “New Coke” debacle of the '80s. On Twitter, much of the chatter follows suit, with tweets like this:
This morning, Maker's Mark President Bill Samuels Jr. responded on the brand's website, thanking people for their responses and going on to defend the decision. He said, in part:
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.
The truth is, 99% of bourbon drinkers will not be able to tell the difference, but that may be beside the point. It's the cheapness of the move that bothers people, the idea that a company can simply give less for more. In fact, many consumers have indicated they'd much rather see a higher price than a lower quality product. It remains to be seen whether this will affect Maker's Mark's sales, but it has surely already impacted its reputation.
Update: Maker's Mark changed its mind! The company announced on Facebook today that due to overwhelming response, they've decided not to water down their product. Here's the official statement:
You spoke. We listened.
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
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