Two Cents on the Red Wax
Oh Makers Mark…
So by now you’ve probably heard about the whole Makers Mark fiasco that has played out over the last week or so, but in case you haven’t, here’s the gist of what went down. The brand announced that it would be lowering the proof of its iconic Bourbon by 3% to meet increased demand. Critics and fans alike were outraged, even though officials in Loreto promised that the new product would taste exactly the same. Then, a couple of days later, the brand retracted its stance reporting that it had “come to its senses” and would be returning the whiskey back to its 90 proof self. Fans rejoiced.
This whole time I’m thinking, what’s the big effing deal? First of all, I can’t tell you how many times I heard “aww whaaaah!, Makers is watering down their whiskey boo hoo hoo…” But guess what? Its already watered down and so is basically every other Bourbon on the market. Bourbon simply doesn’t come out of the barrel, magically at 90 proof, whiskey makers actually add water to get to a consistent ABV, almost always. And secondly isn’t Maker’s Mark known for its smoothness and drinkability? Well what do you think lowering its ABV slightly would have done besides make it smoother and more drinkable? NOTHING! And while I did hear some murmurings about how they are the category leader and such a move sets a precedent for less successful brands to follow suit, potentially jeopardizing the integrity of the entire American Whiskey segment… I can tell you what jeopardizes the American Whiskey industry: companies like Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana who is owned by a parent company called MGP Ingredients that produces things like this (click) making one 95% rye whiskey and calling it Bulleit, Filibuster, George Dickel, High West, James E. Pepper, Redemption,Smooth Ambler, and Templeton, deluding the drinking public into thinking we have this giant resurgent of new rye whiskeys, when in fact there is only one.
At least Maker’s Mark was being up front about what they were doing, but I’ll bet you money if they would have made the change quietly, nobody except maybe Paul Pacult would have noticed. Eventually some arm garter wearing mixologist would have noticed the change on the label and launched a viral coupe that no one outside of the very small cocktail world would have cared about and he would have gone back to raving about the new LDI rye he’s using in his barrel aged Old Pal. Another thing they could have done is what Wild Turkey did a couple of years ago and just release a separate label, with a lower proof, which happened to be a very successful move with little consumer blowback. As it turned out more people liked the slightly more watered down Turkey better than the 101, which is arguably a better Bourbon. At the end of the day, all the whoopla stems from nothing more than irrational emotional attachment. I mean, its not like any of the dissenters actually tried the 84 proof Maker’s Mark. Oh and isn’t this stuff mostly consumed over ice, and doesn’t a spirit with a higher alcoholic content melt ice faster (yes it does), and isn’t ice made out of water, so isn’t it all the same anyway?
The question that now remains is how does the company deal with the supply issue that caused it to consider the dilution in the first place? Consumers said that they would rather face the occasional supply shortage or price increase than have the recipe altered in any way, but I promise you that they are lying and that when supply gets scarce or prices start to jump it’ll be the same bitching all over again. I guess one thing the company could do is stop the relentless rapid expansion of new foreign markets until there’s the stock to do so, but that is an industry wide problem and who’s to say Indonesia will still want Bourbon 6 years from now when supply catches up. Another option would be to increase the proof coming off the still, and obtain consistency through careful blending and dilution, while maintaining the 90 proof label, though I would find this to be a much worse compromise and again, one whose efforts wouldn’t be realized for approximately 6 more years.
At any rate, Maker’s Mark will always have a special place in my heart. It was my drink of choice for all of my early twenties, and as a “gateway whiskey” it got me to explore what is now my favorite spirit category. While my friends were all drinking vodka, Crown or (Gasp!!) Patron, I felt like I had discovered this really special elixir, the one dipped in red wax. It was cunning marketing that I now understand but hadn’t a clue about at 22 that sucked me in to that squatty bottle with the torn yellow label, and now I’m wondering if this whole thing isn’t just an elaborate PR campaign. (Ok I confess, I can be quite the conspiracy theorist at times, ask any of my friends…) I’m thinking of a campaign that takes a brand that re-launched an entire category which is currently close to saturated (with labels, not product) whose domestic growth may have started to flatline a bit, and forces the public into proclaiming how much they love your product, and then you reward these loving consumers who may have been experimenting with other brands by saying “we listen, we care, we’re here for you, now come back home to daddy.” I’m just sayin it could happen, but that doesn’t change the way I feel about my first whiskey love. So here I am, on record as being the only person in the industry willing to say “they should’ve changed it.” At least that way we could all have done a little side by side tasting and made an objective decision on the matter.
Remember the Maine!
Post by Alex Gregg
Photos: google images