Sunday, February 24, 2013

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The Wu of Maker's Mark

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.

The ensuing uproar was immediate, vocal, and sustained. On Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, indignant fans deplored the decision and excoriated the firm. Bartenders who prefer overproof spirits that can stand up to the dilution of mixers and ice in cocktails bemoaned the new direction. Users howled indignation and pundits prognosticated the future of the brand (opinions ranged from “I’ll never buy Maker's again” to “In a year, who will even remember?”). It became a national story. Up in Vermont, WhistlePig vowed to increase the proof of its rye whiskey. I stayed mostly mum on the topic. Regardless of what others recalled next February, I would remember who did this.

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.

For the past twenty years or so, there's usually been a bottle of Maker's knocking around the house, but when Samuels made his initial announcement, my thought simply was to abandon the label quietly. No point in making a fuss. I'd never tasted the lower-proof version and the erosion of quality is arguable. We were assured the taste was nearly identical. That was beside the point. For decades, Maker's has presented itself using the language of heritage, tradition, and craftsmanship, a brand — a family — hitched to the yoke of history. Through it all, that squat bottle with its red wax top remained unchanged. The trope of Maker's as custodian to an unbroken legacy of quality suffuses marketing materials, bottle design, and even the grounds of the distillery itself which in 1980 was declared a National Historic Landmark. Your haircut, your president, and your wife may change, but Maker's would always be Maker's.

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 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


Anonymous said...

Well there you go. Years ago I used to drink Wild Turkey. On the label it said "Aged 8 years." Then one day it said, in identical typography "Old No. 8" instead.

I wrote in and asked if indeed the whiskey was no longer aged 8 years, and if not, then how long?

They answered that it was no longer aged 8 years, but it was still just as good. As for how long it was now aged, if at all, they were silent. I couldn't decide whether I could taste the difference, but the wu was gone for sure and I never bought another bottle of Wild Turkey.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't reducing to 84 from 90 proof be a 3% reduction, not 6%?

Anonymous said...

It's actually 6.67%. (90-84) / 90 = 6.67.

The ABV would drop from 45% to 42%, which is a drop of 3 percentage points, but once again 3 / 45 = 6.67@ decrease in alcohol by volume. To make an extreme example, if you had something that was 2% alcohol, and dropped by 1 percentage point to 1%, would you be reducing the alcohol content by 1%, or is it a 50% reduction (yes)?

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous Re: Wild Turkey

The simple rule of thumb in today's domestic US whiskey market is that if the age isn't noted it's 2 years old. Turkey, Makers, etc. are all essentially aged 2 years which is also essentially the minimum requirement to be labeled as they are.

If you used to like Wild Turkey back when it was awesome, I would like to inform you that you can still essentially get it in the form of Russell's Reserve, a 10 year old created by and named for master distiller Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie. Anyway it's 90 proof, reasonably priced, and tastes like Wild Turkey ought to.

Anonymous said...

Anon the first got it right re: Turkey going from 8 years old to No. 8 (to nothing at all today -- overseas markets still get the age stated 8yo and even 12yo!)

Anon the fourth is wrong about NAS (no age statement) bourbon. Yes, it must be at least two years old to be called "straight whiskey", but if it is less than four years old, the age must be stated on the label.

Russell's Reserve 10 year old was good stuff when it was 101 proof. The bean counters watered it down to 90 proof but at least were kind enough to change the bottle.

The newest WT owners pulled a similar stunt last year, dropping the proof of their rye from 101 to 81 while sending Eddie Russell out to insist bartenders were clamoring for the lower proof.

Back to Makers: you've hit on the key point -- that the brand identity was tied to the notion that they make only one expression (not true then counting overseas and the 101 proof; not true now counting Makers 46) and that they made it the same as Bill Samuels Sr. did all those years.

Anonymous said...

The Wild Turkey example is like what Anheuser Busch did to Rolling Rock. They bough the brewery in Latrobe, PA, shut it down, and moved production to another location and prefaced the famous 33 word slogan "from the glass lined tanks of old latrobe..." with of all things "To honor the tradition of this great brand, we quote from the original pledge of quality."

Anonymous said...

A company can either be passionate about its products or passionate about its profits. But not both.

Michael said...

Really enjoyed the article, happy to hear from another former Hawklet.

Anonymous said...

Maker's is aged around 7 years. The only reason it isn't stated is because Maker's is bottled when it is ready, not by an arbitrary amount of time. High/Low/Average temperature and humidity from year to year affects the expansion and contraction of the barrels and thus how much color/flavor is extracted from the once charred oak. Anyone suggesting Maker's is two year old bourbon is an absolute fool.

Anonymous said...

you guys know that whiskey is always watered down? it's part of the process.

Doug said...

Dude, I agree with you on Maker's making a bad choice (although I think ascribing spiritual qualities to it might be a bit over the top). But you kind go off the reservation here:

"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."

Most of our grandparents believed in creation, and they did just fine—"greatest generation" and all. I know plenty of Bible-believing Christians who have no problem understanding how the natural world works. Maybe you just don't know enough/any smart Christians?

michael said...

Thanks, Doug.

Anonymous said...

Basically, I see it as Maker's saying, you can't taste the difference anyway. While they may be right in saying I can't tell many of my premium bourbons apart in a blind taste test, it shows a distain for the customer that rubs me the wrong ay.

Anonymous said...

Well, is something that claims to be Barrel Proof actually watered down? Clearly Makers Mark at 90 proof is watered down from whatever the whiskey was when they took it out of the barrel. At 84 proof it was going to be a little bit more watered down.

Anonymous said...

Basic economics suggests that when demand outpaces supply, the market provides two alternatives: increase supply or increase prices to lower demand. Makers chose a third path: discontinue production of the sought-after product and replace it with a new, similar and more easily manufactured product.

This third path is the one that is most typically chosen by a degenerate industrial society, is the one that leads most directly to failure, and, to use another idea from eastern philosophy, is that path that most clearly demonstrates that the manufacturer has lost the mandate of heaven.

Ken said...

I'm more concerned with Makers Mark's 46 advertising campaign, which implies that most people who drink whiskey do not actually like whiskey. It's shameful. Example below.

Matt said...

"...this object has made its peace with the universe ... Robert, this object has wu."

Great read, thanks

sam k said...

Well written piece, Matthew. Thanks for the well-reasoned perspective. A couple of comments...

Anheuser-Busch did not buy the Latrobe brewery and close it. They purchased the Rolling Rock brand and moved production to Newark, a sin and a crime regardless. The brewery continues to operate as a branch of City Brewing Company of LaCrosse, Wis.

Then, "This third path is the one that is most typically chosen by a degenerate industrial society, is the one that leads most directly to failure..." If this is the case, how did Jack Daniel's continue to be the number one whiskey brand worldwide after two reductions in proof over a decade or so (90 to 86 to 80)?