Maker’s Mark is a small-batch bourbon whisky — whiskey produced by mixing the contents of a relatively small number of selected barrels — distilled in Loretto, Kentucky, by Beam Inc.
It is sold in squared off bottles, sealed with red wax, and bottled at 90 proof (45% alcohol by volume). The first bottle of Maker’s Mark was bottled in 1958 and featured the brand’s distinctive dipped red wax seal.
In early February, the company sent a mass e-mail announcing plans to reduce the alcohol strength of the whisky, citing supply issues as the reason, resulting in their product being 84 proof (42% alcohol by volume).
On February 17, the company reversed its decision after receiving strong negative reaction from thousands of customers in less than a week.
Most of the customer feedback came from Twitter and Facebook, and was probably similar to the following comment made by Michael Krieger, a former Commodities Analyst:
“I’m sorry, but this excuse reeks of marketing spin. What manufacturer decides to dilute their product when they face high demand, rather than just raise the price by 3% and keep the quality intact?
“In a world where horse meat is increasingly finding its way into ‘all beef’ product, where biotech salmon is soon to hit the streets and where Subway’s foot long sandwiches are less than 12 inches, I’d be willing to bet this is simply just another case of good old fashioned stealth inflation.”
The company in a statement on its website on Sunday said to its followers: “You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.”
“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.
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.
Mark Boxley, with The Louisville, Ky. Courier-Journal, notes that 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.
Other bourbon brands took this opportunity to rib Maker’s Mark for its marketing blunder.
Wild Turkey posted on Twitter: “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.”