Struggling to keep up with skyrocketing global demand, Maker's Mark has decided to decrease the amount of alcohol in its wax-dipped bottles in order to keep its hooch on shelves.
Bourbon fans take note: One of your favorite brands may be a little weaker the next time you pop open a bottle.
According to a memo obtained by Quartz, Maker's Mark has decided to decrease the amount of alcohol in its bourbon by three percentage points, from 45 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) to 42 percent ABV.
Maker's Mark chief operating officer Rob Samuels and chairman emeritus Bill Samuels Jr., whose respective grandfather and father, Bill Samuels Sr., founded the brand in 1958, said reducing the amount of alcohol was the only way the brand could reach a surging global demand. In 2010, international bourbon exports grew by nearly 17 percent, according to Advertising Age. In the United States, bourbon accounts for 35 percent of all spirit sales, Today reports. Last year, Maker's Mark raised prices and warned it was struggling to meet global demand.
Company heirs insist that after lengthy research, they found alcohol reduction to be the only way they could keep their cherished brand on shelves while maintaining its distinctive recipe and taste.
"We have both tasted it extensively, and it's completely consistent with the taste profile our founder/dad/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr., created nearly 60 years ago," the men said in an email to brand ambassadors. "We've also done extensive testing with Maker's Mark drinkers, and they couldn't tell a difference."
Even if drinkers can't taste the difference, Maker's Mark may be sending them the wrong message. According to Eric Greenleaf, professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University, the bourbon brand is ruining its marketplace position and compromising consumer trust.
"For years they've been selling bourbon by telling people it's better than others — that it's made carefully and aged carefully by experts," Greenleaf told MSN News. "Now they're saying, 'If we water it down, you can't tell the difference.' It runs against positioning they've built in marketplace and leaves customers feeling betrayed."
This line of thinking, Greenleaf believes, places Maker's Mark on a slippery slope with consumers and its prestige.
"If people think they can't tell the difference between the new and the old Maker's, then they might think they can't tell the difference between Maker's and a cheaper bourbon," he said.
Are there alternatives to weakening the strength of the product?
Greenleaf says it’s not an easy fix. Bourbon isn't a product that can be rapidly manufactured to meet a rising demand. After all, what makes the beverage so distinctive is the complex aging process. Maker's Mark can age its whiskey for up to eight years.
How about raising the price of the whiskey?
That's not so simple either. Maker's is owned by Beam, Inc., an umbrella company that also possesses lower-end whiskey brands like Jim Beam and higher-end labels such as Knob Creek and Booker's. If Maker's were to pad its price, it would risk interfering with Beam Inc.'s other brands and their established price points.
Faced with this dilemma, the Samuels family decided that their only move was to get a little more out of what they already have. There's a risk, though.
"There's an old expression about watered down whiskey, and it doesn't give a positive image," Greenleaf told MSN News.
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