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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A shakeup to one of Kentucky's signature bourbons means less alcohol but more supply.
Buyers will soon be drinking a slightly watered-down Maker's Mark bourbon.
Maker's Mark Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels says reducing the alcohol from 45 to 42 percent is the only way to meet higher demand -- a bourbon boom, if you will.
Samuels told WDRB News and the brand's "ambassadors" via email the company couldn't keep up with demand, especially during the holidays.
So it's cutting the alcohol from 90 proof to 84 proof, a 3 percent decrease, to put more bottles on the shelves.
"It was really no more complicated than sales were much higher than available supplies at the distillery," Samuels said.
"Through November and December our phone at the distillery was ringing off the hook from Maker's Mark ambassadors, Maker's Mark consumers, bar owners, restaurateurs who couldn't get Maker's Mark and couldn't understand why. There was a lot of passion with these conversations as well," Samuels said.
Party Mart owner Jerry Rogers had supply troubles, too. He just stocked a new Gardiner Lane shopping center store with one of his best sellers -- a bottle of Maker's Mark.
"For instance, the 1.75 liter bottle, that bottle of whiskey generates more income for this business than any other bottle in that size," Rogers said.
Maker's Mark announced the change Saturday morning. It does not include Maker's Mark's new "46" brand. Early critics complained to Louisville writer Fred Minnick, who writes about the bourbon industry at www.fredminnick.com and posted the news Saturday.
"People are saying that you're watering it down to make money. You're being greedy," Minnick said.
"Fans all across the world have really taken this as a personal insult because the Maker's Mark brand is filled with so many loyalists. People love this brand. To lower the proof, there's been a negative reaction to lowering the proof," Minnick said in an interview Sunday afternoon.
Shoppers at Party Mart were curious. The "New Coke" change of the mid-1980's came to mind.
"When I first heard the news, it reminded me of Coca-Cola. So I'm wondering if it will have the same effect on the public, and if Maker's Mark would have to go back to the way it was before," said Kevin Schulz.
When asked if he'd like to try the 84 proof Maker's Mark once, Schulz said, with a smile, "I don't think it would be fair to give it one try. Maybe two or three."
Maker's Mark goes back to the 1950s, perhaps best known for its red, wax tips and bold marketing. It was one of the first bourbons to stand out from older, "white label" bottles.
It's not the first time such a change has come to the whiskey shelves. Other major brands have reduced alcohol content, in part to make them more palatable for international sales.
"Maker's Mark cannot compete on an international level, as it is now, with the current whiskey stocks they have. If they don't make a move to increase their supply, they will effectively lose out in major markets in Korea, China, Brazil and Russia to other brands," Minnick said.
"The general course is that, no, there won't be a hiccup, and if it gets us all the whiskey that we need to sell, then it's a lovely thing," Rogers said.
"As long as it still tastes like really good whiskey, I'm okay with it."
And Rob Samuels says the taste will stay the same, according to hundreds of taste-testers in and out of the Loretto, Ky., distillery.
"What we've asked is much like we've experienced ourselves -- is to taste before you judge."
Samuels says you can taste for yourselves within the next ten days.
The price will stay the same.
He also said in the email, quote, "We've made sure we didn't screw up your whisky."
Samuels' email to Maker's Mark "Ambassadors," sent Saturday morning:
Dear Maker's Mark® Ambassador, > > Lately we've been hearing from many of you that you've been having difficulty finding Maker's Mark in your local stores. Fact is, demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it, which means we're running very low on supply. We never imagined that the entire bourbon category would explode as it has over the past few years, nor that demand for Maker's Mark would grow even faster. > > We wanted you to be the first to know that, after looking at all possible solutions, we've worked carefully to reduce the alcohol by volume (ABV) by just 3%. This will enable us to maintain the same taste profile and increase our limited supply so there is enough Maker's Mark to go around, while we continue to expand the distillery and increase our production capacity. > > 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. We've also done extensive testing with Maker's Mark drinkers, and they couldn't tell a difference. > > Nothing about how we handcraft Maker's Mark has changed, from the use of locally sourced soft red winter wheat as the flavor grain, to aging the whisky to taste in air-dried American white oak barrels, to rotating our barrels during maturation, to hand-dipping every bottle in our signature red wax. > > In other words, we've made sure we didn't screw up your whisky. > > By the way, if you have any comments or questions, as always, we invite you to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Thanks for your support. And if you've got a little time on your hands, come down and see us at the distillery. > > Sincerely, > > Rob Samuels > Chief Operating Officer > Ambassador-in-Chief > > Bill Samuels, Jr. > Chairman Emeritus > Ambassador-at-Large