To hear whiskey nuts talk about it, the end of days are upon us. Calls for a boycott — driven by the obvious greed of Maker’s owner Beam Inc., right? — are common. Declarations that Maker’s Mark will no longer be consumed are also rampant.
Maker’s Mark, for the next few weeks anyway, is bottled a 90 proof, or 45% alcohol. This has been a point of pride for the company for years, which has celebrated the little extra kick that gives you over the now-standard 80 proof whiskey.
By dropping down to 84 proof — that’s 6.7% less alcohol than before — Maker’s will be able to stretch its whiskey surprisingly far. Maker’s produced 1.3 million cases of whiskey last year. With the reduction of proof it will be able to add another 90,000 or so cases to its annual shipments. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but figure a wholesale price of $15 to Beam and you’re looking at an annual revenue addition of $16 million to the company. That’s substantial.
So what happens now? Are you going to revolt? If Maker’s is your standby drink, are you suddenly going to start drinking Evan Williams or Old Crow?
First, I believe the Samuels clan when they say its professional tasters can’t tell the difference between Maker’s at 90 proof and Maker’s at 84 proof. I haven’t had the new Bourbon yet, but I look forward to doing the Pepsi challenge myself. I imagine telling them apart will be difficult at best. Most MM faithful will probably have that skeptical first sip, find it palatable, and promptly forget the whole thing.
Second, this is not the first time proof reductions have happened in the world of booze. They’ve been commonplace for years — remember that in the early 1900s, Bottled in Bond whiskey, mandated to be sold at a full 100 proof, was the sign of a quality product. Proof levels started coming down post-Prohibition during wartime years, and the gin industry has been slowly lowering proof levels for decades.
The most notable proof-dropper, however, is Jack Daniel’s. JD dropped from 90 proof to 86 proof in 1987, then to 80 proof in 2004. There was an outcry. There were petitions. There were assurances that JD would vanish from the market as drinkers flocked to competitors.
Today, Jack Daniel’s is — by far — the best-selling whiskey in the world.
Will you begrudge Beam that $16 million for watered-down Maker’s Mark? Probably. But look at it this way: It will give you something to complain about with the bartender who pours it for you.