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 Eater.com, 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.