Maker's Mark waters down bourbon to save supply

Increasing global demand for Kentucky's spirit of choice is leading to tough decisions for distillers.

By Jason Notte Feb 11, 2013 5:44PM
You call that a Manhattan? With Maker's Mark dropping its alcohol by volume from 45% to 42%, that's a Hartford or Newark at best.

The folks at Quartz intercepted an email sent to Maker's Mark customers from parent company Beam (BEAM) on Saturday saying that the bourbon's alcohol content would be reduced "by just 3%" to offset shortages and meet rising global demand. However, the company later clarified that it would be reducing alcohol content by three percentage points and actually dropping its potency 6.7% from 90 proof to 84 proof.

The Samuels family that produces Maker's Mark -- the bourbon of choice for a bitters-laced Manhattan cocktail -- isn't taking the reduction lightly. Rob Samuels and Bill Samuels Jr. put it plainly to Maker's Mark fans in their email that "we've made sure we didn't screw up your whiskey," but noted that increasing worldwide demand for their product means this is a change everyone will have to live with.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council liquor trade association, whiskey made up a whopping 70% of the $1.5 billion in liquor the group estimates the U.S. exported in 2012. That's triple the nation's beer exports and $250 million more than its overseas wine shipments. File photo of bourbon bottles at Maker's Mark Bourbon Distillery, on 16 Oct. 16, 2006 (Walter Bibikow/Corbis)

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Distillers' Association notes that bourbon accounts for 35% of all spirits produced in the U.S. Bourbon fuels $2.5 billion in sales in the U.S. and in the 126 countries where it's exported and makes up the majority of U.S. whiskey exports.

While the Samuels family isn't comfortable with watering down its prized product, Rob Samuels told Louisville, Ky., radio station WFPL on Sunday that complaints about the new alcohol content "pale in comparison to the feedback that we've received with the shelves being empty" in Florida, California and elsewhere.

It's also not as if they're the first to do so. Back in 2004, Brown-Forman (BF.A) lowered the strength of its flagship Old No. 7 black label Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey from 43% alcohol by volume to 40%. That's a full 10 percentage points lower than what it was in 1987, when Jack Daniel's first had its potency reduced from 90 proof to 86 proof.

The purists muttered and cursed to USA Today then just as they now disparage Beam's Maker's Mark decision as “cheap business practice” in the New York Post. However, the trend worldwide is toward less alcohol content. The Times of India notes efforts in the United Kingdom to get brewers and distillers including Heineken and Diageo (DEO) to produce more low-alcohol beers and spirits. Besides, doesn't less alcohol give fans more time to enjoy the bourbon they love?

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Feb 11, 2013 6:33PM
Ummmm...If you're not meeting the demand, add a new have to increase production, notwater it down.  Just sayin'
Feb 11, 2013 7:05PM
Only a ignorant moron would water down the product, instead of expanding to meet the market.
Feb 11, 2013 7:01PM
Well, at least they've solved their shortage problem.  I'm sure they'l have PLENTY on the shelves after this ridiculous idea.  I used to be a fan of Maker's, one of the reasons was their adherence to tradtion, such as hand dipping and recipe.  Not so much anymore.  Sad to see another good company screw up success.
Feb 11, 2013 7:04PM
They'll lose enough business to solve the problem.
Feb 11, 2013 6:03PM
Amazing how this article tries to spin this as a positive. 
Feb 11, 2013 6:48PM
Not worth buying anymore! ill just buy something thats not about profits and more about qulaity and taste
Feb 11, 2013 7:45PM

Easy fix is take care of American customers first. If any is left export


watering down whisky is stealing form your customers


Just another corprate sell out on my list of never buy the product again


There is much better bourbon available that is not stealing from its customers

Feb 11, 2013 6:50PM

That's America today folks.  Pay more and get less.  LOL  Everywhere I look the prices on virtually all spirits are on the rise just like gasoline.  Pretty soon I am going to have to quit drinking and switch to marijuana.  LOL  Just kidding. 

Feb 11, 2013 6:48PM
Feb 11, 2013 7:25PM

Tough Choice?   If supply is short, you raise prices unitl demand meets supply (econ 101).   I'm ashamed of Makers.  I hope this trend doesn't spread to other brands from the Bluegrass state.


Oh well, back to my WoodFord Reserve.

Feb 11, 2013 6:09PM
The mathematical cluelessness involved in this part of the article is pretty remarkable:

"...the bourbon's alcohol content would be reduced "by just 3%" to offset shortages and meet rising global demand. However, the company later clarified that it would be reducing alcohol content by three percentage points and actually dropping its potency 6.7% from 90 proof to 84 proof."

The alcohol content is being reduced by 3 percentage points. Proof is marketing speak. You arrive at Proof by doubling the alcohol content percentage. 100% pure alcohol is 200 proof. Standard whiskey, vodka, gin, rum or whatever is 80 proof or 40% alcohol. Some brands will fiddle with this a little and go 86 proof, 90 proof or 101 proof but regular stuff is overwhelmingly 80 proof. That flavored vodka that stupid people drink is 70 proof. 

Nothing like sensationalizing a straightforward story with a complete misunderstanding of math (or more likely an intentional attempt to befuddle the stupid)  to make is sound much worse than it is. 
Feb 11, 2013 8:39PM

Four Roses Small Batch,  Bulleit,  W L Weller,  Prichard's Double Barrel,  Eagle Rare,  etc, etc.....


Plenty of quality sippin' whiskey that hasn't been watered down.....

Feb 11, 2013 9:05PM

Problem solved.  I will stop buying  Maker's.  Then they can sell the inferior product to unsuspecting customers with new found money. 


May I suggest not screwing your tried and true fans!  I will just spend all my American dollars on Austin Nichols!

Feb 11, 2013 7:46PM
Feb 11, 2013 9:25PM
90 proof wasn't cutting it anyway.  I prefer whiskey made in the woods that comes in around 140 proof.
Feb 11, 2013 7:39PM

This is nothing more than a reduction in the amount of product that is provided for a price. Coffees that used to be all Arabica beans are now mostly if not all lower-grade Robusta beans. Cans of tuna are a scosh lighter. And so on.


Looks like bourbon's rainy day is here.



Just like everything else shortening the product and keeping the same price. Big mistake they are making. There are alot of other bourbons out there for drinkers to go to. Especially cheaper and more alcohol content.
Feb 12, 2013 9:59AM
This is called growing pains.  The uprise in European demand has put a stress on production.  Distillation plant expansion will take time but it's the only smart thing to do.  Never alter your product to meet demand.  Especially in the distillation business.  This changes the whole process and the product.  However, now that the cat is out of the bag lets see if demand changes?
Feb 11, 2013 6:27PM
Clearly an unintended consequence of globalization.  How sad.  

Of course, all they have to do is life the sanctions against private brewing.  Anybody can let some wheat (or other) ferment.  Or as it would have been said if pixar was looking at this:

Anyone can ferment.
Feb 11, 2013 8:42PM
HA!  I'm gonna fool 'em.  I'm going to use 1-3/4 oz instead of 1-1/2 oz in my cocktails.  Then I'm going to LMFAO.
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