Red-faced response to red wax attacks

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You’ve heard of a tempest in a teapot. This was a blowup in a bottle – a bottle of Maker’s Mark with one key change on the label: 42 percent alcohol by volume, rather than the historic 45 percent.

The distillery’s announcement last weekend that it was reducing the alcohol percentage to stretch its dwindling supply instantly drew dismayed and angry responses from fans, bartenders and others in the industry, a reaction that grew throughout the week.

And so today, Rob Samuels and Bill Samuels Jr. took to email once again to announce a reversal to Maker’s Mark’s ambassadors:

“Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

“You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.

“So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.

“The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker’s Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you’d even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we’ll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery.

“Your trust, loyalty and passion are what’s most important. We realize we can’t lose sight of that. Thanks for your honesty and for reminding us what makes Maker’s Mark, and its fans, so special.

“We’ll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created. Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.

“As always, we will continue to let you know first about developments at the distillery. In the meantime please keep telling us what’s on your mind and come down and visit us at the distillery. It means a lot to us.”

The bottles of 42 percent ABV/84 proof Maker’s are now likely to become collector’s items. I’ll admit it: I bought two, one to keep and one to open and compare with the 90 proof to see if I can tell the difference in the taste. I’ll let you know, but I don’t really expect to. Maker’s conducted extensive taste tests at the distillery and with Maker’s drinkers before making the original announcement, assuring fans that the taste profile remained the same.

The bad taste that will be left behind is the public-relations nightmare that Maker’s endured over the past week – a frankly stunning development for one of the most market-savvy brands in bourbon history. Maker’s pioneered the ambassador concept, building incredible loyalty among its drinkers. So why not bring them in way sooner? Let them know that a shortage was on the horizon, and ask them what option they preferred? Conduct those ”Coke vs. Pepsi” taste tests much more publicly and make them part of the process, rather than an after-the-fact reassurance?

While the past week’s developments probably won’t hurt the brand much overall in the long run, they’ve sure been fascinating to watch. For once, Maker’s Mark was known more for red faces than red wax.

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