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Kentucky sad: Maker's Mark decision threatens its legacy

Should I drink it, or save it, now that Maker's at full strength will become a relic? (The photos below come from the University of Louisville photographic archives. The photo of the Old Crow sign on the right, was taken along east Broadway in 1959, the same year the first bottle of  Maker's Mark was sold. The building at left was the Morris Whiskey Company at 700 W. Market, in 1943.) 

Should I drink it, or save it, now that Maker's at full strength will become a relic? (The photos below come from the University of Louisville photographic archives. The photo of the Old Crow sign on the right, was taken along east Broadway in 1959, the same year the first bottle of  Maker's Mark was sold. The building at left was the Morris Whiskey Company at 700 W. Market, in 1943.) 

Kentucky lacks a lot of things it needs, but it has managed over the years to spawn a handful of brands that make its sons and daughters proud, no matter how far from home they've wandered. There has always been basketball, bourbon, betting, and tabaccy to remind us where we come from, of course. But it's been up to a handful of brands to make us feel good about it. From KFC to the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs to Ale 8 soda from the Eastern Kentucky mountains, these products scream Kentucky the same way Dr Pepper and long-horned cattle scream Texas. 

Among them, the red-tipped bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon has always been the classiest of home state icons. And that's why it's been so sad to see the distillery take such a drubbing from the public in the days since it announced it was watering down its bourbon so it can sell more bottles. 

This hasn't gone over well. More than 5,600 people on Facebook responded to the piece I wrote for TIME on Tuesday. Hundreds more tweeted it out. The Atlantic's business channel, qz.com, had one of the first pieces on the change over the weekend, and a few thousand people responded to the story, too. Later this week, Forbes and Inc. writers chimed in with pieces asking whether the Maker's Mark had committed a form of "brand suicide."

What’s most surprising to me is that all of this seems to have caught Maker's Mark leadership by surprise. 

Bill Samuels Jr., now 71 and chairman emeritus of the distillery, resisted joining the family firm. His father and five generations before him had been bourbon makers. But he went a different route, studying rocket science, and attending the University of California at Berkeley and eventually earning a Vanderbilt law degree. When he did join the distillery, he took on the job of marketing what the Kentucky House of Representatives has called quirky regional bourbon, and made it a global icon "while staying true to his family's legacy of hand-craftsmanship."

The distillery itself in tiny Loretto in central Kentucky in the heart of bourbon country was the first in America to be named a national historic landmark and is the oldest continuously operating bourbon distillery in the world, according the House resolution extolling Samuels’ many contributions. 

Rob Samuels put the history this way: 

"My grandparents, their vision was to try to bring bourbon and good taste together," he told me during our interview Monday. "Prior to Maker’s Mark, the category was test of manhood, aggressive, bitter whisky. Their vision was handmade bourbon that would essentially appeal to people who didn’t like bourbon. … For the first 25 years, Make’s Mark remained this cult Kentucky brand beloved brand, only by Kentuckians. Beginning in the 1980s, bartenders in big cities and the nicest restaurants sought out and discovered and embraced Maker’s Mark. It was at that point that Maker’s Mark began to grow."

Bill Jr. is the man who brought the bourbon to those big cities, once he finally decided to join the company. He sold them on that quirky but easy-drinking regional bourbon. His approach was simple, but novel: He set out to introduce himself and the bottle to bartenders in large cities where he figured taste-makers were more likely to start a word of mouth campaign. It worked brilliantly, and continued into more recent decades with the widely seen and iconic billboard ads.  

On Monday, both Samuels told me they took pride in the family business that, in their words, created the premium bourbon category in America and helped trigger the explosive growth that has put them where are now: Too many bourbon drinkers and not enough Maker’s to go around.

During all those years, Bill Jr. told me Monday, his top job was to do what his father had always demanded: To keep an eye on the product and to ensure consistency. 

So when he told me that yes, he had signed off on the proof reduction, I came away a little sad. 

"What we are taling about is not really a news story," Bill Samuels said. "Other than the fact that it has become a news story, and we kind of thought it might. But it gives us an opportunity to pull everyone back to what our promise is: And that's a quality product that is consistent day after day, batch after batch, and year after year. That's the end of the discussion."

But it's not really. The discussion has been raging far beyond that since last weekend.

It's true, of course, what he says about the water. But he is missing something important. And coming from someone whose whole career was spent telling a story about Maker's, and making sure the product lived up to the tale, it’s hard to fathom that he is. 

Of course bourbons that come out of the barrels are mixed with water before they go in the bottle to get to the desired proof. But "the bourbon" that people know is the bourbon they pour out of their bottles, not the barrel-strength stuff that they never taste. 

Part of the magic formula for Maker's has been that it uses a certain amount of water to create a specific product. You add a bit more water and a little less of the booze out of the barrel, and you have a slightly altered product. And that's true whether or not it tastes the same, as both Samuels insist that it does. 

Bourbon experts I consulted say that the taste will change, though many drinkers won't notice. Some stated that the bourbon would no longer be part of the complex cocktails that characterize the craft cocktail craze underway in many big cities. If so, that's a sad turn of events for a product that got its biggest boost in just those sorts of cocktail-crazy bars decades ago. 

But the real damage has little to do with the taste of the bourbon. And that's the thing that I would have expected the elder Samuels to see right away.

"Maker's has cheapened their brand perception, even if the product is essentially almost identical," said Dianne Gleason, a friend of mine who doubles as president of Boulder-based Enfuego Strategic Communications. "It looks like corporate greed and cheapness, pure and simple, and it is completely antithetical to the company's ethos."

'Corporate greed' and Maker's Mark have never been in the same sentence before. And for good reason. The bourbon really is made by hand, and it really is true that Bill Samuels Sr. made it for more than a decade before even turning a profit, so committed was he to the idea of getting it right. 

The whole story that Bill Samuels has told over the decades has been rooted in a simple proposition. Summed up, it might go like this: We make our bourbon slow, and we make it right. When it’s done, you’ll be glad you waited. 

But it's also true that the Maker's Mark Distillery that Bill Samuels Jr.'s son Rob runs as chief operating officer is no longer the local artisanal shop it once was. These days, it's owned by Beam Inc, an out of state conglomerate that also sells mass-produced bourbons like Jim Beam and a host of other lesser known liquors. 

Rob Samuels insists the decision to change his grandfather's formula was his alone. He said the number of important customers -- bartenders and hotels especially - who couldn't get their hands on his whiskey frustrated him. It’s not hard to understand the pressure he was feeling.

When you put bourbon down for a six-year sleep, there is a lot of guess work about how much you'll want to have ready to sell when you finally wake it up and pour into those iconic red-tipped bottles.

Bill Jr. says he screwed up bad. Several years ago, he guessed wrong about how many bourbon drinkers in the world there would be in 2013 and 2014. They don’t have time to wait another six years for Maker's to make more. So by pouring about 7 percent less liquor into the bottles, the company gets to sell more bottles. He insists that most of us won't even notice the difference. 

But others will, and the real trouble is that the push back on the decision has caused thousands of drinkers to reconsider their relationship with the world's oldest bourbon distillery. Maybe, it will be time to try those fancier bourbons that Maker’s Mark’s success has engendered. 

Gleason sees a winner in this whole mess, but it won't be Maker's. “The only winner will be Knob Creek and smaller craft distilleries who have a brilliant opportunity to launch their own marketing programs off this big fumble,” she said. 

I bet we’ll see those billboards soon. 

None of this is meant to demonize either of the Samuels. But it strikes me as a serious mistake, and one many would be glad to see reversed. I’ve asked Maker’s Mark executives and the Samuels’ PR rep for a follow-up interview. I’d like to know if it’s possible they might reconsider. I may hear from them next week, I’m told. 

Meanwhile, there are larger worries than just Maker’s fidelity to its traditions. Bartender Alba Huerta, general manager of the very cool Anvil cocktail bar in Houston, told me this week that she’s worried about Maker’s decision because it could influence other, lesser-known distilleries to follow suit. After all, with more and more bars stocking scores of hard to find bourbons shortages will be increasingly common. 

She’s hoping – and I am guessing she is far from alone here – that the Beam-owned Maker’s sees its influence among other distilleries wane, and that those others reject the example and keep their products strong. 

If that happens, I guess we’ll keep a better bourbon supply on the shelves. But for this son of Kentucky, the news will stay just as sad.

Michael LindenbergerComment