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Less Potent Maker's Mark Not Going Down Smoothly In Kentucky

Feb 11, 2013
Originally published on February 11, 2013 7:58 pm

Kentucky is bourbon country. Bar shelves in Louisville are stocked with a crowded field of premium bourbons; the city's Theater Square Marketplace restaurant alone carries close to 170 different brands. So when news trickled out that longtime distillery Maker's Mark plans to water down its bourbon, locals were stunned.

Bourbon has to be aged at least two years — and that's where Maker's Mark got in trouble. Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels says the company simply didn't make enough.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook over the last three or four months from most every city in the country where Maker's Mark is not available," Samuels says. "As far away as California and as close to home as the package store five minutes from the distillery."

Now, the company says it must spread the remaining supply over more bottles to meet growing demand. The Maker's Mark label will now read 84 proof instead of the traditional 90.

The Samuels family invented Maker's Mark six decades ago and has been distilling in Kentucky even longer than that. The company prides itself on quality and tradition. Its slogan used to be, "It tastes expensive ... and is."

Samuels says keeping that signature taste, despite weakening the drink, was key.

But maintaining flavor is one thing — maintaining the company's image is another. People might not notice a change in the taste, but they are likely to notice that the price isn't going down.

"My initial reaction was, that's how bourbons that are not premium brands would deal with it," says Jason Falls, a marketing professional who has worked with Maker's Mark in the past. Knob Creek had a similar shortage in 2009, he says, "and I believe the way the brand dealt with it was they sent T-shirts to all their ambassadors that said, 'I survived the drought ... of 2009.' "

It's unclear if Maker's Mark's move will hurt the brand's global reach. But in Kentucky — bourbon country — locals aren't too happy with the change.

"It's gotten ... a lot of outrage," says Sara Havens, who writes about the bar scene for the Louisville Eccentric Observer newspaper. "People asking if they're going to lower the price now, [or] just that it's kind of not fair."

Havens says she'll still drink Maker's Mark, but probably less often. "[When] you go to a bar and you know one drink is watered down and the other drink is potent, you always go to the potent one," she says.

To avoid another shortage, Maker's Mark is planning to expand operations — and they're not alone. In Kentucky, there are now more barrels of bourbon than there are people. So even if an old standby like Maker's Mark is hard to find, there'll always be something to drink.

Copyright 2014 Louisville Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.louisvillepublicmedia.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Bourbon is a big deal in Kentucky. So when news trickled out this weekend that Maker's Mark plans to water down its bourbon, people were stunned. The company says it needs to spread its remaining supply over more bottles to meet growing demand. For the drinkers' perspective on the change, we go to Gabe Bullard of member station WFPL in Louisville.

GABE BULLARD, BYLINE: Maker's Mark maybe in short supply nationwide, but at the Theater Square Marketplace in Louisville, there was plenty along with many other bourbons.

GREG MOORE: Elijah Craig, Angel's Envy, the Willett Pot Still, Basil Hayden, Bookers, Knob Creek...

BULLARD: Greg Moore is a bartender and stands in front of a shelf of whisky. Maker's Mark is easy to spot with its distinctive red wax top, but the shelf is crowded. Maker's used to be one of the only premium bourbons, especially outside of Kentucky. That's not the case now.

MOORE: Somewhere in the neighborhood of, I think, 170 or more.

BULLARD: Bourbon has to be aged at least two years, and that's where Maker's Mark got in trouble. Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuel says they didn't make enough.

ROB SAMUELS: Phones have been ringing off the hook over the last three, four months from most every city in the country where Maker's Mark is not available on the shelf in as far away as California and as close to home as the package store five minutes from the distillery.

BULLARD: The Samuels family invented Maker's Mark 60 years ago and has been distilling in Kentucky longer than that. Maker's Mark prides itself on quality and tradition. Its slogan used to be: It tastes expensive...and is. Samuels says keeping the taste despite weakening the drink was key. Maintaining flavor is one thing. Maintaining image is another. People might not notice a change in the taste or the 90 proof label on the bottles dropping to 84, but they will likely see the price isn't going down.

JASON FALLS: My initial reaction was that that's how bourbons that are not premium brands would deal with it.

BULLARD: Jason Falls is a marketing professional who did work with Maker's Mark in the past. He says this kind of situation has happened before, but others haven't quite dealt with it this way.

FALLS: For instance, there was a Knob Creek shortage in 2009, and I believe the way the brand dealt with it was they sent T-shirts to all of their ambassadors that said I survived the drought or the shortage or whatever of 2009.

BULLARD: It's unclear if this change will hurt the brand's global reach. But in Kentucky, which is bourbon country, the reaction from locals is a little different.

SARA HAVENS: Gotten a lot of response, just kind of a lot of outrage. People asking if they're going to lower the price now, you know, that it's just kind of not fair.

BULLARD: Columnist Sara Havens writes about the bar scene for the Louisville Eccentric Observer newspaper.

Are you still going to drink Maker's Mark?

HAVENS: Yeah. I mean, I think I will, probably not as often as I do now. Just, you know, you go to a bar and you - if you know one drink is watered down and the other drink is potent, you know, you kind of always go to the potent one.

BULLARD: To avoid another shortage, Maker's Mark is planning to expand its operations, and they're not alone. In Kentucky, there are now more barrels of bourbon than there are people. So even if an old standby like Maker's Mark is hard to find, there will always be something to drink. For NPR News, I'm Gabe Bullard in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.