Maker's Mark reverses course, apologizes; iconic bourbon will remain 90 proof

by Michael Lindenberger


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Update: Bill Samuels Jr. and Rob Samuels speak about their decision to restore Maker's Mark to 90 proof.

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A sitting governor and three former governors were among thousands of disappointed -- and in some cases outrage -- Maker's Mark drinkers who lashed out at the company for watering down its bourbon, Bill Samuels Jr. said in an interview with me this morning.

Thousands of drinkers -- including a sitting governor and three former governors -- howled their protests over the past week since Rob and Bill Samuels Jr., the bourbon family scions that run – but do not own – Maker’s Mark distillery said in an interview Sunday that they’d made a grave error in announcing last weekend that they’d water down their iconic brown liquor.

Many thousands of fans wrote or called in the past week to express outrage, both men said Sunday.

“We have been humbled by the overwhelming response,” said Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of the Loretto, Ky. distillery known for its red winter wheat-based, easy drinking bourbon. “What we heard from our customers loud and clear – and they were right -- is that this is about more than just taste.”

Beginning Monday morning, the distillers in Loretto will return the product to 90 proof, he said.

That means, they added, that the bourbon will likely remain in short supply in many parts of the country. “But our customers have told us they would rather put up with a shortage than have us change their whisky,” Rob Samuels said.

In announcing last Saturday that the bourbon would be watered down so it could be sold in more bottles, Maker’s Mark officials had said that some areas of the country –and overseas – had much more demand for the product they could supply.

Bill Samuels Jr., chairman emeritus and son of the founder, said he no longer runs the company, but he does not expect a price increase.

“In my 35 years as CEO we had multiple times when we had out of synch supply and demand situations,” he said. “More than 20 times. Never once did we go to the pricing tool. Now, I am retired, but we do have a culture around here. And that culture has always been ‘Don’t abuse your customers.’”

That culture has created a powerful loyalty to the brand, following Maker’s Mark from when it was a small, cult-like following largely in Kentucky, through rapid expansion in the 1980s as word about the wheat-flavored bourbon spread among major restaurants and bars in big cities – fueled always by the down-home marketing approach personified by Bill Samuels Jr. “We’ve been pretty busy for country folks,” he told me this morning.

But the loyalty has also stuck with the brand through at least purchases, most recently by conglomerate Beam Inc., which has a stable of dozens of liquors, including down-market titles like Jim Beam.

One question that will linger even as Maker’s returns to its 90 proof strength, is whether the loyalty the brand has won over the decades will survive unscathed – or whether the company will be seen as just one more outlet of corporate America.

Both Samuels said this morning that Beam officials had been asking them to explore options to increase supply as shortages materialized in some markers. But Bill Samuels Jr. said it had been his plan to tinker with the proof to expand supply.

“They were seeing the same things we were seeing,” Rob Samuels said. “And so they were asking, like we were, what are our options. Have we explored all of our options?”

His father, Bill Jr., said it was his contribution to say, “You know we never have really explored the proof. And so it was my idea as much as anyone’s.”

He said he worked hard, though hundreds of tastings, to come up with a proof strength that kept the Maker’s taste profile the same. “And we did have a little room there. It worked (without changing the taste).”

But it still seemed like tinkering to Maker’s fans, including high-end bartenders who are the modern-day successors to the tastemakers that Samuels used to make the brand an underground sensation in the 1980s.

I interviewed bartenders in San Francisco Saturday night, some of whom called the decision a “travesty” and said colleagues were considering pulling the brand from their shelves, though others said that was overreacting by a long shot.

“We heard from a lot of them, and that made a big difference,” Bill Jr. said. “It made the decision (to reverse course) easier. We really rely on them and appreciate what they have done for us and for the bourbon industry in Kentucky.”

The Samuels said the decision to reverse course was made a couple days ago, and the news was carried to Beam Inc. officials, who quickly agreed. “They’d been watching the reaction from our customers just like we had been,” Rob Samuels said.

Bill Jr. said, “we went with our tail tucked between our legs” but that the conversation was an easy one.

The big take away for both the Samuels and for their bosses at Beam Inc., said Rob Samuels, “was a lesson in jus throw great, how loyal our fan base is.”

The statement released Sunday said, “we won’t let you down again.”

Time will tell if fans accept that, or if they’ve taken the chance to move to another brand.

Initial story:

Maker's Mark executives, including the son and the grandson of the Kentucky bourbon's founder, apologized Sunday morning and said they had let their most loyal customers down. (For background on how, read my take from last week here, and in Time, here.

The upshot: The decision to water down their bourbon by lowering its proof from 90 to 84 has been reversed. The iconic, red-waxed dipped bottles will continue to be sold at full

"We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision. You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down."

The full statement is below, but for now it's worth just restating how far afield the Samuels had strayed in approving this proof reduction. Last night in two of San Francisco's most elite craft cocktail outfits, bartenders told me the response had been overwhelmingly negative. A travesty, one told me. Another said his colleagues from across the country were debating "removing it from their shelves."

Where did such passion, and then such anger, come from? It came from Maker's own success.

In 1980, Bill Samuels Jr. scored the marketing coup of his career when he managed to lure a writer from the Wall Street Journal to tiny Loretto to spill the secrets of his daddy's little-known bourbon.

"In producing its premium-priced Maker's Mark bourbon, it continues to use an intricate six-year aging process and a small bottling line that are models of inefficiency," the writer David P. Garino wrote on the front page, noting that nonetheless growth in sales had been steady each year since it began selling the slightly sweet, winter wheat-based (rather than rye-based) bourbon.

Suitors had lined up to buy Maker's Mark, but Bill Samuels Sr. kept them waiting. "I just won't talk to them," he said.

His son, now chairman emeritus, told the writer the distillery will stay small and, most importantly, the owner's philosophy will mean "zero compromise on the quality of our whisky."

In the last week, the Samuels told me that faced with a shortage, they had opted to water down their product rather than raise its prices. The idea is to keep it affordable, they told reporters.

But that had never been in DNA. The bourbon had first been marketed in 1958, and its first ad was a two-page spread in New Yorker magazine. Its tag line in 1980, said the Journal, was "it tastes expensive ... and is." Its ad copy, often, read: "For those who ask how good a whisky is. Rather than how much."

What changed over the years? A few things:

  • Maker's advertising successes, backed up by a quality-oriented product that appealed to non-bourbon drinkers, created a new category of bourbon: Premium, quality-first brands. Over the past 15 years, the company in that category has grown raucous.

  • Maker's is no longer considered a top-shelf bourbon. It's solidly upper middle class, with more expensive brands -- usually with higher proofs -- enjoying much greater cache among the same taste-making bartenders and restaurateurs who made Maker's famous in the first place. Pappy Van Winkle, which can sell for more than $100 a bottle, is the cult favorite now -- and it's scarcity hasn't changed that a bit.

But the biggest change is in ownership. Maker's is just one brand of many owned by Beam Inc, which sells Jim Beam by the riverful. It's much cheaper, not nearly as good, and immensely popular with drinkers looking for price, not taste.

So going forward, Maker's has two challenges: Will it repair the damage it did to its brand over the last week? And how will it navigate the odd middle ground it finds itself in: Too expensive to compete on price and too little respected to outcompete the most elite brands on status.

The best thing Maker's can hope for is that by acting quickly, the bubbling resentment over the decision last weekend will do it no lasting harm. The worst-case scenario is that the full-scale move away from its traditions, which is what the watering down decision was, will lay bare the uncomfortable truth about the bourbon industry: Even the most fastidious keepers of the flame of family-owned, traditional distilleries are really corporate employees of huge conglomerates.

I'm pulling for the Samuels to keep their brand on track and keep Maker's what it is: A damned good, if not great, bourbon with a marked fidelity to its roots. But the odds aren't going to be easy.

Here's the full statement released on facebook this morning:

You spoke. We listened.

Dear Friends,

Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.

So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.

The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker’s Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you’d even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we'll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery.

Your trust, loyalty and passion are what’s most important. We realize we can’t lose sight of that. Thanks for your honesty and for reminding us what makes Maker’s Mark, and its fans, so special.

We’ll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created. Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.

As always, we will continue to let you know first about developments at the distillery. In the meantime please keep telling us what’s on your mind and come down and visit us at the distillery. It means a lot to us.

Sincerely,

Rob Samuels Bill Samuels, Jr Chief Operating Officer Chairman Emeritus