Whisky Advocate

Maker’s Mark to Drinkers: Never Mind

February 18th, 2013

Today, Lew Bryson joins us to provide an update on the recent Maker’s Mark announcement.

In what is being hailed as a victory for the consumer (and a demonstration of the power of social media), on Sunday, Maker’s Mark reversed itself on their decision to lower the proof of their standard bottling. The decision, which leaked the previous Sunday, cited spiking demand and production capabilities that were lagging, and was presented as a middle path between raising prices and sharper allocation cuts.

Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels and his retired father, Bill Samuels Jr. (the familiar face of Maker’s Mark for decades), assured us that it was not a decision that was taken lightly, and that the lower proof whisky had not affected the taste. “Every batch at 42% ABV had the same taste profile that we’ve always had,” said the elder Samuels. “Then, we validated our own tastings with structured consumer research and the Tasting Panel at the distillery, who all agreed: there’s no difference in the taste.”

But consumers were rightly skeptical, and reacted swiftly. There was a huge uproar among the whisky’s many fans and the change got a lot of attention in the mainstream and social media; almost all of it critical. There was speculation that the move had been planned for a long time, there was questioning of why Maker’s hadn’t simply raised their price, and there were a lot of comparisons to “New Coke,” but mostly what there was…was rage. Words like “I’m never drinking Maker’s again” blazed across cyberspace.

Chastened, the Samuels’ backed down. Yesterday the Maker’s Mark website had a new front page: “You Spoke. We Listened. Here’s Proof.” The words were backed by an arrow pointing to the “45% ABV” on a Maker’s Mark label. The statement from Bill and Rob Samuels reads, in part, as follows:

Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down. So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.

Well…not quite, of course, since they cut the average age of the whisky by about a year not long ago (which Bill acknowledged in the week’s news stories), but still: good call.

The unanswered question is plain: what the hell just happened? Like New Coke, we’ll probably never know. Maybe it was about raising the profile of the brand — though why raise profile of a brand when you have supply problems already? — maybe it was about making more money, and maybe it was exactly what was stated: they made a bad decision, and changed their minds when they saw the uproar it caused. We don’t know.

What we do know is that pallets of 84 proof Maker’s have arrived at stores, and they’re not recalling them. So if you want a piece of history, a solid bottle of screw-up, better get to the store!

56 Responses to “Maker’s Mark to Drinkers: Never Mind”

  1. Richard Turner says:

    Jeeeeeez, I’m afraid to think this is just a ‘marketing ploy’…? A WHOLE BUNCH of free buzz and an artificially created sudden interestm, Nationwide….. in Maker’s… Naaaaw, just a co-incidence, I’m sure.

  2. Andrew says:

    Their famous slogan, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” First they changed how long their aged their product. Next they wanted to change the alcohol content. Yep, the more things change the more they remain the same. They are just like the rest. Never believe the hype, never believe the myths.

  3. lawschooldrunk says:

    Sorry; too late. This ship has already set sail. Just ask Dalmore how many bottles I’ve purchased of theirs since their ridiculous rebranding and price gouge.

  4. Bernhard Schaefer says:

    I don’t believe a word. I’d say it was very clever viral marketing.
    First the announcement, a lame “it was tested by our staff and there was no difference”
    Then let’s wait and see..if it would go through, fine 42% more Whiskey. But there was a strong reponse..against it…off course this was foreseeable…
    So what was the result? Everything stayed the same, besides all the Drinks Media reported, the social Media spoke about it, Maker’s Mark was in discussion…all for free..no ad campaign could have done that. And they have a good image “We listen to YOU customer, it is your brand”
    Do not forget, MM is not the nice and small distillery it is just part of the international Jim Beam Group, which is not bad at all, but off course it is not that the Samuels make the decicions alone ..

  5. politicalidiot says:

    At the end of the day it is much ado about nothing. Makers Mark isn’t a top shelf whiskey anyway.

  6. B.J. Reed says:

    Cardow!!!!

  7. Lew Bryson says:

    Well…I don’t really believe the theory that this was all some crazy marketing scheme. Or at least…not one to raise the price, or raise the awareness of the brand. They’ve already stated that they don’t want to raise the price, and they give very good reasons for it. Raising the awareness of a brand when you have plain and real supply issues already isn’t that smart; you’re just going to make the supply issues worse.

    However…if you have a supply issue, and you’re grappling with how to make consumers (and retailers) aware that supply is going to be tight in a way that will keep them with you through that dip in supply…this might make sense (to the right marketer). Because everyone who read or heard about the story now knows that Maker’s is in short supply. They also believe that Maker’s considered changing the whiskey to meet that problem…and then listened to their fans’ outrage and changed their minds instead. So now, loyal drinkers of Maker’s, the whiskey stays the same, and we have a bond of trust: you spoke, we listened. Which should help get them through a period of slim supply.

    At least, that’s the only “this was a marketing ploy” theory that makes sense to me. It’s a bit more finessed than “we tell ‘em we’re changing it, a week later we change our minds, tell ‘em we heard their pain, and bada-bing! We sell more whiskey!”, but it’s a problem that needs finesse.

    What do you think?

    • two-bit cowboy says:

      There’s a future for you in marketing, Lew. :-)

    • Mr Manhattan says:

      I think the brand will suffer some damage as a result of this. Ironically that might in turn solve some of their short term product availability issues. This may also have made folks who were otherwise unaware that MM is owned by a much larger corporate entity. That will have some fallout too.

      My bar, highly focused on American whiskey, sells very little MM. I don’t even keep it in the well. I sell far more Bulleit (though not enough to keep it in the well either) which I think eroded some of MM’s market share a few years back.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      It does make sense, but I still remember the fiasco Diageo made of the Cardhu adulteration affair. It looks like Makers Mark may have made the same mistake this could hit their sales, only time will tell.

    • Jeff says:

      So many angles, Machiavelli would need a protractor.

      On the surface, you can’t get a better justification for a price increase. Maker’s can always turn around and say “Hey, we told you there’s a supply problem and you were clear that you didn’t want it watered down, so…”.

      But was it just a cynical trial balloon on the part of Maker’s? Maybe not – after all, Maker’s didn’t just announce the change and sat back to see what happened, they actually made and shipped the 42% product. But, then again, big companies play big games. Following Lew’s point about New Coke, while some people in Atlanta doubtless lost their jobs over the debacle, how many millions WAS it worth to Coke to establish their original product, not just as traditional, but as “Classic”?

      You obviously can’t beat this as a stunt to establish a brand as being true to tradition and responsive to the customer, all by doing essentially… nothing, and it’s an angle that Maker’s intends to play upon, as per the last line quoted from the Samuels’ statement: “Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.” Well, thanks for “saving” your bourbon, but it was YOUR idea to change it in the first place and, what’s more, we were told that the decision to change was looked at from all angles, made only after long and careful consideration, and was essentially unavoidable – and now, a few days later, it can be completely reversed. So much for what’s written in stone (original dedication to tradition AND the results of cold, hard calculation). For that reason alone, I find it very difficult to take Maker’s at its word on any of this, and a possible shift of the issue for customers from one of quality to one of credibility might be the long-term consequence that Maker’s ends up regretting the most.

      Maker’s probably won’t lose much on its experiment, with many already talking up the 42% ABV bottles as some kind of mass-marketed collector’s item, and you can already predict bars using “The Maker’s 90 vs. Maker’s 84 Taster’s Challenge” as an event to build customer traffic. Then again, just what is a large amount of money to Beam?

      But the biggest question for me is whether the huge negative reaction Maker’s got was really about rabid customer loyalty to the traditional product or, at least in part, a backlash against marketing BS in general; simple frustration at again being told that up is down, less is more and that, even as you adjust (again) to the ever-shifting definition of reality, the only thing that never seems to change is that the people preaching it to you will, in the end, be making more money.

      • two-bit cowboy says:

        Brilliant, Jeff. Absolutely brilliant. I toast you, sir, with a tasty Edradour 10. :-)

        • Jeff says:

          You’re too kind, Bob, but it’s too bad that you ran out of the good stuff (ha ha)!
          Take Care and Sláinte!

      • Peter T. says:

        Maker’s Mark Classic you say? Mixed with Coca Cola Classic and you’d have a new cocktail. It could be called a Marketer’s Dream on the rocks. Smooth…even if it results in a hangover for corporate.

    • theBitterFig says:

      I think they probably just did something dumb. Corporations can be incredibly stupid.

  8. Jamie Wika says:

    I’ll just buy more Old Charter 10, forget MM, over priced, over hyped, over and out.

  9. MrTH says:

    Whiskeys change all the time, they just don’t tell us about it. Moral: don’t announce it, just do it.

  10. Jim L says:

    As Deep Throat said “follow the money”. Not only would the whiskey be cheaper to produce but they would pay less in Federal Excise tax as this is based on proof.

  11. Scotty Freebairn says:

    I have been a devotee of Marker’s Mark since its inception years ago. I applaud the decision to NOT lower the proof, regardless of the reasons. I believe in Bill Samuels, Jr, and I think this was all about a mistake in judgement on how the market would react. And, the reasoning of short supply causing the decision in the first place did not sit well with me. Don’t fix something that isn’t broken!

  12. Jamie Wika says:

    Ancient Ancient Age 10 year is also way better than MM, and a heck of a value under $20.

  13. Ed Phalen says:

    I don’t believe there is a shortage of Maker’s Mark. There, I said it. Now, what does that do to the theory. They doubled production twice in the last 6 years. Added warehouse space. I believe they are losing market share to high end bourbons, that have higher proof and age statements. If they want to save money, I’d hate to see those lovely women who dunk every bottle put out of a job or maybe that signature red wax could be painted on the bottle, instead of the costly dip. You don’t look to change the product as a first step.

  14. The 43% arrived at my store exactly 36 hours after the press release and I am told the whiskey was sitting at the wholesalers until the press release and now I am stuck with 50 cases of 43% that no one wants. Bad management at Maker’s

  15. Texas says:

    AFAIK the Samuels’ don’t really make many decisions there since the Beam bought them. IMO clearly this came down as a mandate from the bean counters at Beam. I suspect that Samuels’ resisted but eventually had to go along, and then when the uproar came they were able to point out to the bean counters what a huge mistake it was. When Jay Leno makes a joke about it..it’s not just us whiskey geeks that were concerned..they really screwed up. But as I say I think it was Beam and not the Samuels’.

  16. Mr Manhattan says:

    Your distributor won’t take product < 30 days back?

  17. Rick from Pleasant Run says:

    I’m definitely with “lawschooldrunk” here and agree with his Dalmore comment. I too was “personally offended” at their (Whyte & MacKay’s Dalmore brand) outrageous marketing ploy and have gone out of my way since “not to purchase” or even take a drink of the brand when offered. I had been a regular imbider but have since purchased my “Cigar Malt” elsewhere! I may be willing to forgive Maker’s in this case because they appear to have acknowledged the mistake and made an appropriate correction. Still, the fact that they even considered compromising the Brand in this way makes them “suspect” in my mind for some time to come. There should be further public acts of contrition on their part to get “right” with this consumer of fine spirits.

  18. HeartSleeve says:

    I’m a MM Ambassador, and the decisions coming out of MM for the last 6 months all point to a money grab. In stating they have a supply issue and dont want to raise the price, but then rescind that decision after consumer “uproar”, just gives them carte blanche to raise their price/profit, and gives them a ton of free PR in the bargain.

    I am not convinced. For instance, the holiday gift this past Christmas, which in years part has been modest but focused on the recipient, this year was 3 empty gift boxes for one to fill with a bottle of MM and give as a gift. How purely self-serving!

    This latest stunt as far as I am concerned is New Coke and Tylenol all wrapped into one. Buh-bye, MM. You have gone from reliable mixed drink fodder to also ran with me.

  19. O. Sorensen says:

    What did Maker’s cut the age to? I don’t recall reading that in this weeks news.

  20. Andrew Ferguson says:

    To play Devil’s Advocate, and from the business perspective, how much would it have hurt the brand had they not reversed course? Sure there was a big social media uproar, but what percentage of their customers actually took part? What percentage of buyers would have noticed the change in strength? What ratio of retailers would be informed enough to notice let alone talk to their customers about the controversy.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they backed down and this is clearly a victory for social media. But given that the regular Maker’s Mark is a low-mid-level brand. Would it have hurt them that much if they’d stayed the course?

    • HeartSleeve says:

      Before the retraction, there was a story floated that the reason they were reducing the ABV was to more easily get shelf space in some markets where spirits are available in food stores. 45 ABV too much, 42 ABV just right. Business model logic for another market, nothing to do with supply and demand.

  21. KYBourbonGuy says:

    Not that I don’t think Lew is trustworthy, but is there a link to a story where Bill said the age was lowered? That was the first time I had heard that, although I assume it has come down in age through the years…

  22. H.Diaz says:

    There is a shortage of Makers Mark at the best and biggest liquor shop in town. The shelves were completely empty. Folks may have panicked and stocked up. All this brouhaha likely helped move some MM. Genius!?!?

    • politicalidiot says:

      Funny thing is I saw Makers Mark on sale all over my town. It wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves either. Lots of stock.

  23. Keith Sexton says:

    Not to be overlooked is the power of social media! It makes me wonder what would have happened had today’s social media outlets been around when Jack Daniel’s decided to lower their proof.

  24. HeartSleeve says:

    Hey KentuckyBourbon guy – here’s your source re: tweaking the age to meet demand:
    http://nation.time.com/2013/02/12/makers-mark-waters-down-its-whisky-and-anger-rises/

    It’s the TIME mag article.

  25. BFitz says:

    The Samuels likely had little actual input. Jim Beam is a multi-billion dollar company. This decision was made by bean counters at the top, then common sense finally got a vote.

    Price increase will be next. But, that is the better solution to over demand. Keep the brand in tact.

    They can ship a lower proof to China, India, etc. as well.

  26. two-bit cowboy says:

    Did you listen to WhiskyCast on the weekend? The day before the reversal? Come on….

    Worth a listen: http://www.whiskycast.com/files/WhiskyCast_20130216.mp3

    • two-bit cowboy says:

      I’ve listened to Mark’s broadcast again. Am I the only one who thinks Mr. Samuels should run for president of the United States? He’s better at NOT answering the question at hand than any recent candidate. And he didn’t know, off hand, how many more cases this reduction in abv would net? Give me a huge break!!!!!!

      Due regard, Mr. Samuels was Beam’s sacrificial lamb. His non answers to Mark’s questions served to highlight the marketing hype. Disgusting, Beam, and to you, Mr. Samuels, for caving in to this bag of fertilizer you attempted to spread.

      Concerning to me is this: during Wyoming’s shelves being devoid of Maker’s Mark, we also had no Laphroaig Quarter Cask. What’s your next trick, Beam?

  27. Tianna says:

    I’m also a MM ambassador and the fallout was swift. Like Cardhu I think Jim Beam made a marketing error but I love Bulliet and the 10 yr Bulliet. I might buy a 42% if I see it and buy 1 more 90 proof but I’ve lost faith in them. They had been a great american company. Now like most they worship “The God-Almighty Dollar”! Such a shame!

  28. Jeff Frane says:

    “Texas” has the right of it. This was never a marketing decision, it was a decision by the bean counters at Jim Beam — we can make more bourbon if we water it down and nobody can tell the difference anyway. I believe you yourself, Lew, said a week ago that the kerfuffle would die down and pretty soon no one would remember it ever happened. Bourbon geeks, sure, but the general public wouldn’t even notice. Or care.

    What was unusual here was that the original statement was made at all. The usual corporate approach would be to quietly drop the ABV and make no announcement at all. I’m reasonably sure that the Samuels argued against the change and perhaps got a concession that allowed the first statement to be released, with the current solution in their back pocket–a solution that had already been approved by Beam in the event that people really did raise a stink. And which little birdie got this into social media and on late-night TV?

  29. mulder says:

    What if Samuels plan all along was to motivate Beam to reverse the dilution order by inciting the public with an “unintentionally” inflammatory PR/conference…genius!

  30. Randy Perrelet says:

    File this under “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”:

    http://www.binnys.com/page/Makers-Mark-84-Proof

  31. WHSKY LVR says:

    All the fans of Maker’s I know, the first thing they do is throw some ice in the glass…not sure I understand the outcry here for “watering down” the whiskey.

  32. Henry says:

    Did people see that K & L sold their stock of the 42% for $5 a piece? Don’t know how many they had, but it was all gone tout de suite.

    http://spiritsjournal.klwines.com/klwinescom-spirits-blog/2013/2/26/help-us-ditch-this-42-makers-mark.html

  33. Warren says:

    Makers Mark……..the Calvert Extra of 2013 !. I’ve drank more different whiskeys than most have ever seen & I still find my way back to Buffalo Traces fine products. I drink my whiskey neat or with a few drops of clean pure water , no chlorine ,fluoride or God knows what they put in H20 nowadays. Buffalo Trace at under $50 has Makers beat in any fair contest , most don’t understand the difference in wheated or rye finished whiskies & I certainly won’t argue it either way. Lots of people want to consider themselves bourbon drinkers but don’t know squat about any of them….a real shame they cannot appreciate things for their differences instead of the sameness. When I can find & afford it George T. Stagg is my drink of choice , I have never tasted a more complex whisky anywhere…..your mileage may vary..

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