Mark Boxley, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After hearing from "thousands" of bourbon drinkers in less than a week, Maker's Mark is reversing course. It will no longer try to extend supplies of its flagship spirit by adding extra water.
The company waved the white flag at noon EST on Sunday, announcing through email and social media that it was a mistake to reduce the bourbon's alcohol content from 45 percent to 42 percent.
"We've been more than humbled by the overwhelming response," said Maker's Mark Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels in an interview.
Starting Monday, he said, every bottle coming out of the Loretto, Ky.-based company will be back to its historic 90-proof strength.
In recent years, Maker's Mark - which is owned by Beam Inc. of Deerfield, Ill. - has seen increasing demand for its product at "a rate, we as a brand, had never seen," Samuels said.
The decision to use extra water was an attempt to "stretch the supply," he said. The company estimated that taking the alcohol content from 45 percent to 42 percent would boost supplies by up to 6 percent.
The company had assured Maker's Mark drinkers that the change in alcohol content would not affect the taste, but they didn't care, Samuels said.
"They've told us that they would rather deal with the occasional supply shortage than have us change their whiskey," he said.
Some serious Bourbon fans, including Tom Fischer of BourbonBlog.com, wondered whether the change could have been a marketing ploy. He noted that Coca-Cola changed the recipe of its namesake soda in the 1980s and received months of customer backlash before releasing "Coke Classic," which brought Coke fans back to the stores in droves.
From a marketing standpoint, Time Magazine called it "one of the greatest marketing blunders in history ... or an unlikely stroke of corporate genius."
"Could (Maker's Mark) have just tested all of us to see what we would do?" Fischer asked, comparing the change in Maker's Mark to New Coke. "I don't think they did that, but it's possible."
Maker's Mark chairman emeritus Bill Samuels Jr. said in an interview Sunday that the company never would have caused this kind of disruption on purpose.
"This was about the worst four or five days of my life, and you wouldn't impose that on yourself unless you were really stupid," he said, pointing out Maker's Mark changed course within a week while Coca-Cola took four months.
Besides hearing from customers, Maker's Mark also was the subject of jabs from other bourbon brands.
Wild Turkey, for example, took to Twitter and posted: "We distill our bourbons at a lower proof than competitors, allowing us to add less water and preserve more flavor." The tweet was accompanied by a picture of a Wild Turkey 101 bottle with the tag line, "Less water. More flavor."
Bill Samuels spent months working to find a way to keep the bourbon's taste the same as the alcohol content was reduced. The company was able to do it successfully, he said.
Fischer got his hands on a bottle of the reduced-alcohol Maker's Mark on Saturday and, after a blind taste test, he said he could definitely taste a difference.
"I'm shocked that anyone at Maker's Mark would think people would think it's the same," he said.
As someone who reviews bourbon as a profession, he admits his palate may be a bit more sensitive. But he believes even casual bourbon drinkers would be able to tell the difference between the two Maker's Mark if they were side-by-side.
The problem of Maker's Mark shortages still exists, and even though the company is increasing production and building space to store 100,000 additional barrels of bourbon this year, the spirit ages for at least six years so it will probably be that long before supplies are able to catch up to demand.
Shortage or not, Fischer said making a watered-down version of Maker's Mark "was not a wise decision to begin with." But an even worse decision would have been to stand firm with the change in the face of such overwhelming customer unrest.
"It's good that they listened," Fischer said.
Combined Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales from producers or suppliers to wholesalers rose 5.2% to 16.9 million cases last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association that released figures last week. Revenue shot up 7.3% to $2.2 billion, it said. Premium brands, generally made in smaller batches with heftier prices, led sales and revenue gains.
Kentucky produces 95% of the world's bourbon supply, according to the Kentucky Distillers' Association. There are 4.9 million bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky, which outnumbers the state's population.
Contributing: The Associated Press