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Maker’s Mark to dilute due to shortage crisis

As the bourbon’s popularity rises abroad, it waters down at home.

The American journalist Benjamin Cheever once lulles the praises of bourbon in an essay for Food and Wine magazine:

This whisky looked like clover honey and went down without burning. Even the finest single malt Scotch is harsh… I checked the label to make sure it was whisky. It was. And homegrown...

I had three glasses of it one evening on shaved ice and wondered why I was having such a good time. Then I checked the label and found that it was 126 proof. I had been fooled. Good bourbon will fool you.

But many a bourbon sipper has felt duped by this weekend’s announcement that the heritage brand Maker’s Mark will be diluting their brew to meet increased international demand. Even the most hardened of Scots might take a dash of water in their whiskey, but the news that the bourbon maker will be adding water to the recipe - thus reducing the drink’s alcohol by volume content by 3% - has been met with the equivalent of a gastro-bitch slap. Many lament a “sad decision” they feel prioritises quantity over quality.

“Bourbon drinkers everywhere are pretty pissed off right now,” wrote Amy McKeever on, following a letter Saturday from Maker’s Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels , explaining that the Kentucky distillery has opted to dilute their stock rather than raise prices or cut down the time spend aging the drink in charred oak barrels.

In a letter sent to brand ambassadors, Samuels wrote that the market for bourbon has “exploded over the past few years” and outstripped their small distillery’s capacity: “Fact is, demand for our bourbon exceeded our ability to make it. We’re running very low on supply.”

Reducing the liquor’s ABV from 45% to 42% will allow Maker’s to stretch their existing supply, it says. The choice is undoubtedly controversial and both Rob and his father Bill Samuels Jr. (the company’s president) took pains, in several statements, to emphasize the quality of the “handcraft” bourbon won’t be compromised:

We wanted you to be the first to know that, after looking at all possible solutions, we've worked carefully to reduce the alcohol by volume (ABV) by just 3%. This will enable us to maintain the same taste profile and increase our limited supply so there is enough Maker's Mark to go around, while we continue to expand the distillery and increase our production capacity...

We've made sure we didn't screw up your whisky.

But fans and aficionados have generally decried the move. "Can’t think of a better way to destroy your brand’s integrity” snaps one complainant on the Maker’s Mark Facebook page.  “More like Water Mark” another quips. Esquire, stalwart of all things perennial and gentlemanly, wrote on their website:  

When the news hit over the weekend that Maker's Mark was actually trying to water down their classic hooch, the gut-reaction was one of offense and bewilderment, if not utter revulsion. We've proven time and again in the pages of Esquire that the crafting of hard liquor is a big fking deal. And Maker's Mark traditional, wax-sealed bottle was the last one we wanted to see changed.

As Zachary M Seward points out in The Atlantic, a decrease of 3% alcohol by volume (ABV) isn’t actually a decrease of 3% of the beverage’s overall alcohol content, but rather a real terms reduction of a 6.7%.

Founded by Bill Samuels Sr. in 1952, Makers Mark still small-batch brewed and bottled in a distillery in rural Loretto, Kentucky.   The brand has always been keen to play to an ancestral purity – “aged to taste” and still using water from the limestone, spring-fed lake on the property’s edge. Bill Samuels Jr., head of the company since 1980, calls himself “a seventh generation bourbon maker”. His son Rob was appointed COO in 2010.

Their decision may undermind this “family” brewer narrative, but it should be noted that Maker’s is owned by bourbon big timer Beam, an American spirits company managing eleven bourbons - including three blends of Jim Beam - plus mainstream tipples like Teachers, Courvoisier, Sauza Tequila and Apple Sourz. Whether Maker’s decision to dilute comes at the hand of overhead pressures still seems unclear. 

To their credit, the distillery’s small team has made a bold effort at transparency throughout the backlash. An ABV reduction of just a few percentage points will probably be negligible to the pallets of most, and it’s not hard to imagine that a more corrupt operation might even have tried to keep the whole thing under wraps. Considering pellucidity has never been a strong suit of large-scale food operators - Coca-Cola’s Dasani debacle and the still shuddering horsemeat spectacle spring readily to mind – Maker’s could be doing worse; though messing with a man's Old Fashioned might not earn them many new friends.


Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.