Rob and Bill Samuels at the Maker’s Mark distillery, March 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen
I’m not saying Bill and Rob Samuels planned this all along, but I sure wondered last week when I heard they had quickly canceled plans to water down Maker’s Mark whisky to make supplies go further.
Maybe I wondered because Bill Samuels is one of America’s sharpest marketers, or because I was a business editor at the Atlanta newspapers when the New Coke affair was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Whatever the case, the Maker’s Mark affair was anything but the “debacle” some media reports called it. In case you weren’t paying attention, here’s what happened:
Rob Samuels, who has been taking over the reins of the Beam Inc. brand from his father, announced Feb. 9 that there just wasn’t enough Maker’s Mark to keep up with demand, despite the distillery’s frequent expansions in recent years.
So, he said, they had decided to dilute their bourbon from 45 percent alcohol, or 90 proof, to 42 percent alcohol, or 84 proof. They said the decision was made after much testing to make sure that a tad more water wouldn’t change the taste.
Nine days later, Rob Samuels reversed course, saying, “You spoke. We listened.” He said the company, which has its offices in Louisville and its distillery near the Marion County town of Loretto, got thousands of complaints from loyal customers who didn’t want their favorite bourbon messed with.
The Samuelses had to know there would be pushback, because bourbon lovers are a tradition-loving bunch. There’s a reason Kentucky bourbon has been marketed for more than a century under labels of “old” this and “old” that.
Bourbon’s popularity is booming around the world, and a big reason is that so much good stuff is now being made. A few decades ago, when many bourbon distillers were producing mediocre stuff, Maker’s Mark was one of the few quality choices. Now, the top shelf is a crowded place, with dozens of great bourbons to suit every taste.
The Maker’s Mark affair will go down in marketing textbooks as another stroke of Samuels genius. Think about it: if nobody had complained, the distillery would have had more bourbon to sell. When, predictably, customers raised hell, Maker’s Mark got a barrel full of free publicity.