“Maker`s Mark” Make a Mistake, and then Another One
Maker’s Mark bourbon was one of the first ‘premium’ spirits I came across in the early days of my cocktail discovery. Whilst it has since been superseded several times in the ‘best bourbon I’ve ever tasted’ stakes, a bottle has remained a core stock item for my home bar to this day. It’s characteristic soft flavour profile gives it easy-drinking appeal and I find it makes for a decent house bourbon in a wide range of cocktails. Many, it seems, agree with me and along with other quality American whiskies, Maker’s have struggled to keep up with the exploding demand for what is probably America’s greatest contribution to the world, it’s whisky.
Presented with such a challenge, the company were faced with a few options. They could accept that they should have done better with their growth predictions and say “when it’s gone it’s gone”, they could hike the price, they could limit supplies such as through an allocation system, or they could reduce the abv to make the supplies they did have lasted longer. There are arguments for and against all, and I won’t pretend that there is a perfect answer. What Maker’s decided to do was reduce the abv from 45% to 42%.
Cue backlash on social media from consumers and industry professionals who weren’t happy at all that their bourbon was being messed with. Maker’s first attempted to reassure everyone that there was no effect on the taste of the whisky, before caving in just a couple of days later and playing the “we’re sorry, we made a mistake, we’ve listened and we aren’t going to reduce the abv after all” card. Cue much praise for how excellent it is that the company have listened to the feedback.
And this praise is what is so peculiar about the whole debacle. Despite all the marketing which would have you believe that Maker’s Mark is a quaint traditional distillery that prides itself on using a traditional recipe and continuing the old ways of doing things, it is in fact the world’s third largest producer of bourbon, churning out some 9 million bottles per year. When you have a business of that size, you don’t go changing something as significant as the abv of your product without doing some research. That research would have told Maker’s that what they were proposing would be received very poorly indeed.
I don’t suppose we will ever know how then it came to be that the announcement to water the whisky down was made, but there seem to be a few obvious options. Perhaps it really was a clever PR exercise, and the back-track was planned from the outset. If it was, they absolutely do not deserve any praise. Perhaps they didn’t do their research properly and genuinely didn’t realise the outcry that would ensure. Should we really be praising such an amateurish company if this was so? Perhaps they did know how people would react but figured they would push through anyway, all that marketing stuff about family values is a load of nonsense anyway they would have thought. If this were so, the back-track either reveals the organisation to be gutless in the face of challenge, or internal power struggles that should never be seen by the consumer. There really is no good option for them. Sure, the PR people have done a good job of damage limitation, but that’s like praising Starbucks for being ethical because the logo designer used some green in their branding.
I’m sure whatever really happened, Maker’s will do well out of it. But let’s not praise the behaviour of cynical corporate business because they happen to be good at spinning a story. These events are either an example of an extremely cynical PR strategy, or of a large business being very poorly managed indeed. I won’t support either, and soon there will be a Maker’s Mark shaped gap in my booze cabinet.