Maker's Mark Shortage? Lower Alcohol Content

Categories: Booze Hound
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All photos by Laine Doss
Maker's Mark aging in the barrel.
As a Maker's Mark ambassador (an important-sounding name for someone on the company's mailing list), I get some pretty cool perks -- calling cards, an annual holiday trinket, and my name on a barrel that's aging somewhere in Loretto, Kentucky. I also get email blasts updating me on Maker's Mark news. The last one I received was about a bourbon festival. But recently, I received a rather different piece of news.

Rob Samuels, chief operating officer and ambassador-in-chief; and Bill Samuels Jr., the son of one of the founders of Maker's Mark, issued a joint statement telling customers that "demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it, which means we're running very low on supply."

This isn't news. Increased awareness of bourbon has made it very popular. In fact, many makers of boutique bourbons, such as Pappy Van Winkle, take advantage of its scarcity and charge more for their products -- sometimes ten times more than other bourbons. Knob Creek experienced a shortage of its bourbon in 2009 and sent to its customers 16,000 T-shirts emblazoned with "I survived the drought of 2009."

Instead of living through the shortage or upping prices to meet demand, the house of Samuels decided on another approach. They would reduce the alcohol by volume (ABV) by 3 percent, taking the bourbon down to 42 percent alcohol (or 84 proof).

I've visited several distilleries, and the first thing a master distiller will tell you is not to judge a bourbon solely by its alcohol content. In fact, the smoothest-tasting bourbon I have tried is a Willett Family Estate single-barrel bourbon that's 122 proof -- way easier to drink than a 90 proof Woodford Reserve. The taste profile comes from many factors, including the corn/grain mixture, the barrels, the aging, even the environment. And all bourbons are finished with some water. So what's the big deal?

Well, many people are wondering if this is the work of greedy corporate America honing in on a family company. Take a trip to Loretto, Kentucky, where the Maker's Mark distillery is located, and you'll see a beautiful small business filled with hometown pride. On a working day, you'll watch yeast fermenting in giant wooden vats, see barrel after barrel of bourbon aging, and witness a group of women hand-dip each bottle in the signature red wax.

But behind this piece of Americana lies the fact that Maker's Mark is owned by beverage giant Beam Inc. Could this actually be a way to cut costs?

At a visit to one of the last truly independently owned and operated bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, the master distiller muttered something disturbing to me about the Samuels family. Something about Beam Inc. keeping them on as "glorified brand ambassadors."

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Three generations of Samuels at Maker's Mark.
The Samuels family says no. The father-and-son team seems to be extremely hands-on in the making of their bourbon. In the same letter, they address concerns about the quality of their product. "Nothing about how we handcraft Maker's Mark has changed, from the use of locally sourced soft red winter wheat as the flavor grain, to aging the whisky to taste in air-dried American white oak barrels, to rotating our barrels during maturation, to hand-dipping every bottle in our signature red wax."

They even go one further to spell out what everyone's thinking:

"In other words, we've made sure we didn't screw up your whisky."

That's not enough for many people, who have taken to Facebook and Twitter to lash out at the news.

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I was at the Maker's Mark distillery in Kentucky this past December. At the end of the tour, everyone was taken into a brand-new state-of-the-art tasting room (which was under construction at the time). There, we were given samples of "white dog," Maker's Mark, and Maker's Mark 46.

I was not one of the taste-testers the Samuels' talked about in their email -- the "Maker's Mark drinkers" who "couldn't tell a difference."

For now, I'll reserve judgment until I sample the new Maker's Mark. But I'll keep my last unopened 90 proof bottle of MM -- just in case.

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter @LaineDoss and Facebook.

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