for Our Daily News Updates
By Lesley Cissell
KyForward associate news editor
In an email to bourbon distributors this weekend, Maker’s Mark announced the decision to begin producing its 50-year-old brand with 3 percent less alcohol per batch in order to meet unprecedented demand.
This announcement follows a month-long, in-house taste test. The primary concern, wrote Bill Samuels Jr., son of the founder and chairman emeritus, on the company’s website, was maintaining “product quality and consistency, batch-to-batch, year-to-year.”
“The distillery made up different batches that Rob [COO and Samuels' son] and I tested every evening over the course of a month,” Samuels said. “Every batch at 42 percent ABV [the current formula calls for 45 percent alcohol by volume] had the same taste profile that we’ve always had.”
Samuels added that consumers participating in their research and the distillery’s tasting panel all agreed that there was no difference in the taste.
Matthew Yglesias, a blogger on business and economics for the website Slate.com, criticized the move. “The issue there,” wrote Yglesias Feb. 11, “is simply that a 3 percentage point difference in alcohol content clearly will change the taste of a beverage. There’s just no way around it. If you can alter the formula that much without people caring, you’re just saying your customers aren’t really paying attention to the flavor of the drink.”
Samuels insists that “all bourbons are cut with water to achieve the desired proof for bottling” except for barrel-strength bourbons. “This is a natural step in the bourbon-making process. Maker’s Mark has always been made this way and will continue to be made this way.”
The company, according to Samuels, is facing growing demand “at a pace we’ve never before experienced.” Although they are investing today to be able to produce more in the future, the alcohol reduction now will help alleviate anticipated shortages.
As Yglesias points out, Maker’s Mark is part of a family of bourbons ranging from Jim Beam at “the lower end” and Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s and Booker’s “at the higher end.” Raising the price of Maker’s Mark to manage supply and demand would have repercussions throughout the portfolio.
It would also be contrary, said Samuels, to his father’s wishes. “We don’t want to price Maker’s Mark out of reach,” he said. “Dad’s intention when he created this brand was to make good-tasting bourbon accessible and to bring more fans into the fold, not to make it exclusive.”