For what shall it profit a man
if he shall gain the whole world,
and lose his own soul?
~ Mark 8:36
Never mind whiskey aficionados; tongues on even vodka lovers were wagging earlier this month over a rare public relations stumble in Kentucky. Rob Samuels, COO of Maker's Mark, announced that the alcoholic strength of the company's signature bourbon was to be lowered from 90 proof to 84 proof.
The company had announced, quite literally, that it was watering down the product.
I was struck immediately by the resonance of Samuels' announcement with Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle. The book depicts a world in which Germany and Japan emerge victorious in World War II. Between them, they conquer and divide a disgraced former United States. I must have been ten when I read it first, but Dick's depiction of wu — a slippery concept applied to handcrafted jewelry in the book, but applicable to whiskey here — has stayed with me for more than thirty years.
It wasn’t indignation over the decision to dilute the whiskey or even anger, really, I felt. Rather, it was sadness. Another layer on our ever-thickening patina of loss. True, Americans have experienced great gains in recent decades in fields such as medicine, technology, and publishing. But we have suffered a concomitant erosion of our greatness. Heroes once idolized have been exposed as flawed — sometimes deeply flawed — humans; OJ Simpson, Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, John F. Kennedy, Michael Vick. Endless obstructionist caviling among our politicians have led many to despair that we will ever be better off than our parents.
Our entertainment has grown recursive; witness the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Arthur, The Karate Kid, or Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene reshoot of Pyscho, movies that did not need to be remade, that arguably should not have been remade, that do not leave the world a better place in their passing. Our homes, by and large, are not built as well as those of a hundred years ago. On it goes. NASA's space program: gutted. New Orleans: flooded and nearly lost to us. The lunacy of creationism taught as fact to defenseless children who will be unable to compete for jobs as adults because they simply will not understand how the natural world works as well as their grandparents did.
Into this morass steps Maker's Mark with another assault on our faith in the goodness of humanity. And why? Why reduce the proof of this iconic whiskey? Profit. Global thirst for American whiskey has grown steadily in recent years and supply has not consistently kept pace with demand. Maker's in particular has experienced shortages, despite a 2012 expansion that increased production capacity by some 45%. Watering the whiskey was seen as a way to increase almost instantaneously the available inventory by 6%.
Deplorable things happen. Every day. Drove my Chevy to the levee and all that. But it's not all odious Kardashians, pedophile priests, and watered down whiskey. Not even close. There are good things as well. Whether it's the residuum of my midwest upbringing or a Catholic education that drives me to be what the Jesuits dubbed a man for others, I choose to spend time making and pursuing things that make the world better. As the California designer Mike Monteiro writes in Design in a Job, "[Y]ou are responsible for what you put into the world...and you can only stand as proud of the work as its benefit to society entitles you to." Amen, brother. Whether it's websites or whiskey, we shoulder a moral responsibility for what we bring into the world.
Until the day it wasn't, the day we were told it was to be cheapened for the masses. And that brings us back to Dick's novel. In The Man in the High Castle, Robert Childan, a dealer in historic Americana — Colt revolvers, Buffalo Bill's head in a jar, Civil War recruitment posters and the like — has presented a piece of modern American jewelry to Paul Kasoura, a wealthy young Japanese civilian newly stationed in occupied San Francisco. Kasoura secretly laughs at Childan for presuming to present such a piece, but soon develops an unexpected attraction to it.
"Here is a piece of metal which has been melted until it has become shapeless. It represents nothing. Nor does it have design, of any intentional sort. It is merely amorphous. One might say, it is mere content, deprived of form.”He goes on.
“Yet,” Paul said, “I have for several days now inspected it, and for no logical reason I feel a certain emotional fondness. Why is that? I may ask. I do not even now project into this blob, as in psychological German tests, my own psyche. I still see no shapes or forms. But it somehow partakes of Tao. You see?” He motioned Childan over. “It is balanced. The forces within this piece are stabilized. At rest. So to speak, this object has made its peace with the universe. It has separated from it and hence has managed to come to homeostasis.”
“It does not have wabi,” Paul said, “nor could it ever. But—” He touched the pin with his nail. “Robert, this object has wu.”Wu, Dick tells us though Kasoura, is a quality that allows us to experience a tranquility associated with holy things. It is not necessarily apparent, even to its maker who may recognize only that the object satisfies, that it is complete. By contemplating such things, we gain wu ourselves. Kasoura is profoundly moved by it. With subtle discomfort, he informs Childan that an associate wishes to replicate the piece in plastic or base metal — tens of thousands of units — for sale to the poor and superstitious in Latin America and Asia. The deal, he confirms, would be worth a great deal of money. “What about wu?” Childan asks. “Will that remain in the pieces?”
Kasoura is silent, but we know the answer. It will not.
Childan could take one of two paths. One could make him immensely wealthy. The other is less clear. He seizes the decision to meet the exporter. Then, in a moment of clarity, he realizes the trap.
Whole affair a cruel dismissal of American efforts, taking place before his eyes. Cynicism, but God forbid, he had swallowed hook, line and sinker. Got me to agree, step by step, led me along the garden path to this conclusion: products of American hands good for nothing but to be models for junky good-luck charms.Which path does Childan take? Read the book.
Maker's Mark, however, made the honorable choice. Chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr. joined Rob Samuels in a conference call to confirm that fans' protestations were heard loud and clear. Geoffrey Kleinman relates their conversation here at DrinkSpirits.com and confirms that, after just a few days of online furore, the whisky will return at 90 proof.
Well, I'll be damned. Turns out there's room on my shelf for Maker's after all. And if, from time to time, it's not available, that's ok.
Goes well with:
- Mike Monteiro's 2012 Design is a Job is ostensibly selling design for web designers, but it's a practical little manual for creative types of all stripes — and those of us who work with them.
- We also disdain watered down bacon. Maynard Davies aims to show how bacon was done the old way.
- Don't know Dick? You may know more than you think. His stories have been made into movies such as Minority Report, Blade Runner, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly. Pick up a copy of The Man in the High Castle at your neighborhood bookstore or online here.
- Got a thing for Dick? You may also enjoy these Charles Bukowski postal stamps.
- David Toczko's 2012 book, The Ambassador of Bourbon: Maker's Mark and the Rebirth of America's Native Spirit, presents over 250 photos of the Maker's Mark distillery, including fermenting mash, barrels in the rickhouse, hand-dipping of the those red wax seals, and some archival material. Introduction by Bill Samuels, Jr. and foreword by Rob Samuels. Pick up a copy here.