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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.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.