Thursday, December 18, 2014

Maker's Mark: 90 proof vs. 84 proof vs. Cask Strength

Maker’s Mark (standard issue), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 45%, $28
Maker’s Mark (lowered proof), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 42%, $28
Maker’s Mark (Cask Strength), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 56.6%, $40 (375ml)

I’ll always have a soft spot for Maker’s Mark; it was the bourbon that got me into bourbon after all. While my preferences have evolved over the past 15 years, Maker’s still stands as a consistent, reliable pour, and one that is almost universally available.

Over my last three posts, I’ve examined how American whiskey brands have dealt with product shortages, looking at George Dickel, Wild Turkey Rye and the Old Grand Dad / Basil Hayden family. The success and growth that has been sustained by Maker’s Mark over several decades finally caught up with them early in 2013 and the situation involving their supply challenges has been fascinating.

First a quick background of the brand. Maker’s Mark was started by William “Bill” Samuels, Sr. in 1954 after he purchased an existing distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Five years later, in 1959, the first bottles of Maker’s went on sale. From the start, the company was a little different. Maker’s Mark carried a premium price tag, though it was never dramatically more expensive than other bourbons. Their primary objective was to produce top quality whisky in small batches. Techniques such as low distillation proof and low barrel-entry proof, the use of Cyprus fermentation tanks, and rotating the barrels through the warehouses for even aging allowed them to justify their price point and promote their focus on quality.

Unique packaging set them apart too: the square-ish bottle with its distinctive red wax seal, and spelling Whisky without the “e” on the label helped Maker’s stand out from other bourbons on the shelf. Another thing that was different about Maker’s Mark was the use of wheat instead of rye in the mash bill. It wasn’t the only, or even the first wheated bourbon made, but Maker’s has used that fact to promote their product more successfully than any other brand.

When the American whiskey industry collapsed in the 1970’s, the conventional wisdom was to fight for the few remaining consumers by cutting costs and appealing to them with low prices. But the Samuels family stayed the course, refused to compromise on quality and even used the fact that Maker’s Mark was expensive as a selling point. That strategy paid off in the early 1980’s when the industry finally started to turn around. After 20 years of slow, steady growth, Maker’s was ready to really take off.

But really taking off requires capital. Often, selling out to a bigger entity is the most realistic way to attain that capital. And that is just what the Samuels family did in 1981 when they sold Maker’s Mark to Hiram Walker & Sons (since then the corporate ownership has transitioned to Allied Domecq in 1987, Fortune Brands in 2005, Beam Inc. in 2011 and Beam-Suntory in 2014).

Bill Samuels, Jr. had been the company president and CEO since 1975 and retained that role after the sale. As he neared retirement Samuels wanted to do something innovative, ensuring that his legacy would encompass more than simply not screwing up the good thing that his parents started. The result was the 2010 introduction of Maker’s Mark 46, a variant of the original that has seared French oak staves inserted into the barrels for a few months at the end of the aging process, and is bottled at the slightly higher 94 proof. The next year Bill Samuels, Jr. retired at the age of 70, handing off the president and CEO positions to Rob Samuels, his 36 year old son.

But Maker’s 46 is somewhat of an anomaly; for all of its prior history the company had made almost nothing but the standard Maker’s Mark, aged 6 to 7 years and bottled at 90 proof. Their driving principle has been that they perfected the product early on, so there was no sense in changing it or producing other variations of it. That fact made the February 2013 announcement that Maker’s Mark would lower its proof from 90 to 84 a bit harder for consumers to accept than if similar news had come from any other bourbon brand.

The proof-lowering news from Maker’s started what is arguably the biggest controversy in recent American whiskey history. While some pundits called the move unprecedented, that simply was not the case. Jack Daniel’s had lowered the proof of their flagship black label bottling from 90 to 86 proof in 1987, and then to 80 proof in 2002. Many consumers were outraged by that move too, but it was a different time; the internet wasn’t so pervasive back then and the 24-hour news cycle was only starting to establish itself. The consumer angst was short lived and those higher proof JD’s were all but forgotten before long.

It was a different story for Maker’s Mark in 2013 though. News of the proof change spread quickly online and consumer anger over the change went viral. The media latched on to the story and it was being covered not just by the spirits industry press, but also by mainstream news outlets. When people who don’t even drink whisky are talking about whiskey, you know the news is big.

Almost all of the coverage and reaction was negative. Fans were shocked by what they assumed would be a detrimental change to a product that they were loyal to and passionate about. The dreaded “watered down” phrase was freely bandied about. Many also viewed the proof lowering without a corresponding drop in price as a de facto price increase. Criticism from their customers was so sharp that Maker’s Mark reversed the decision just eight days after announcing it.

The situation garnered so much attention that some people began to speculate that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. That idea was reinforced by the fact that the Samuels had been so brilliant with their marketing for the brand’s entire history up to that point. It seemed odd that they would suddenly do something so stupid. Then, in September of 2014, Maker’s Mark introduced a new Cask Strength bottling. This new release was viewed by some skeptics as evidence that Maker’s Mark didn’t really have supply issues and that the proof lowering fiasco was a marketing ploy to drive sales.

Let’s look at some numbers and try to get a sense of what’s really going on. As I said above, the Samuels family members have always been brilliant marketers. And once the company had corporate backing, they were in a position to achieve double digit growth percentages year after year. That means production increases had to be managed to match future growth. While they have essentially been able to keep up, demand has continually been slightly ahead of supply.

Looking at the numbers for annual net sales growth is interesting (it’s been right around 15% each year since 2010), but the numbers that I was able to find for annual case sales are more relevant because they can be compared to output capacity.

1994 – 175,000 cases
2007 – 800,000 cases
2011 – 1,000,000 cases
2013 – 1,400,000 cases

In 1996 a second still house was added, doubling capacity from 750,000 cases to 1,500,000 cases. Remember though, the whiskey has to age for about six years, so they wouldn’t have been able to grow beyond 750,000 cases per year until 2002.

While the 1.4 million cases sold in 2013 was less than the distillery was capable of producing, it’s unlikely that they had entered more than that into barrels in 2007. Going back 6 years from the start of the shortage, we land squarely at the start of the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis. I think it’s highly likely that there was a knee jerk reaction at Maker’s Mark to that period of economic instability. They probably cut production, or at least stopped increasing it, bringing about the shortage six years later.

In fact, there’s further evidence that the shortage was real. By the spring of 2013 Maker’s had limited (or even suspended) production of their 1.75 liter bottles. Diverting whiskey from the bigger bottles was necessary to ensure that they could fulfill all of the orders they had for the standard size bottles. The management at Maker’s also revealed that they had begun to employ a barrel rinsing process to extract as much whiskey from the oak as possible to reach that 1.4 million case total for the year.

Plans for the addition of a third still house had been announced in 2005, which would increase capacity 50%, to 2.2 million cases per year. That project got delayed when the corporate owner switched from Allied Domecq to Fortune Brands later that year. I suspect the financial issues of 07/08 delayed investment in that project even further. The latest expansion finally got under way last spring, but the production increase won’t go into effect until mid 2015 and the additional whiskey won’t hit the shelves until 2021.

The thought of the proof lowering fiasco having been part of grand marketing scheme did sound plausible to me on the surface, but as I’ve dug deeper and looked at the numbers, the idea has simply stopped making sense to me. There was no reason for them to engage in a risky marketing strategy when major production increases wouldn’t come to fruition for another eight years.

The management at Maker’s Mark probably bumped production back up pretty quickly in 2008 as the economic situation stabilized. That would give them enough extra whiskey to be able to put out the new Cask Strength bottling. And considering its substantially higher price point, it probably won’t draw too heavily from their supply.

The production of 84 proof Maker’s Mark early in 2013 lasted about a week. Considering their production level for that year, they probably bottled between 20,000 and 30,000 cases of the lower proof version. It went through the normal distribution channels but spread pretty unevenly around the country; some states saw none at all and others got quite a bit. It took some work, but I was able to get my hands on one of those bottles. Writing about it was something that I just kept putting off for various reasons. However, my procrastination ended up being beneficial; a side-by-side tasting of the 84 proof, the flagship 90 proof and the new Cask Strength will make for a much more interesting comparison.

Maker’s Mark (90 proof)
nose – Leather and shoe polish are the most obvious notes, but there is also a dusty grain quality and an underlying touch of sweetness. It is nicely balanced with just enough alcohol mingled in with the aromatics.
palate – The sweetness comes more to the fore on the palate but certainly not to the point of being cloying. Corn-driven grain notes mix with a vanilla and leathery oak character.
finish – Warming spice notes do come into play on the finish, but without the floral and cinnamon character common to rye based bourbons.
overall – It’s approachable but by no means lacking backbone. While the flavors don’t evolve in a dramatic way, they are well integrated. There might be a touch of astringency late on the finish, but one would be hard pressed to find any major flaws here.

Maker’s Mark (84 proof)
nose – The aromas are similar to the 90 proof Maker’s, but notably thinner. I’m also picking up a bit of mint that I didn’t notice in the original.
palate – There is less depth of flavor overall, but the balance has shifted as well. The sweetness and oak character have dropped back while the corn-driven flavors have become more dominant.
finish – It has the same warming spice quality on the finish, but far less flavor has carried along to that point.
overall – This is a significant departure from the 90 proof Maker’s; thinner, drier, more corn-like and not nearly as well-integrated.

Maker’s Mark (113.2 proof)
nose – It’s quite similar to the 90 proof in terms of the aromas, but much fuller, sharper and more dense.
palate – The classic Maker’s sweetness jumps out right up front, along with all of the flavors that keep the 90 proof version in check, but everything is amplified. That sweet start transitions into a drier mid palate rather quickly though, with lots of oak character and subtle nuttiness providing a pleasant segue to the finish
finish – It has a big, bold, spicy finish. While this is certainly alcohol driven, plenty of flavor (leather, oak, spearmint, teaberry) has carried along to keep things in balance. The finish is very long and warming.
overall – Robust and powerful, but still sippable neat. It has an interesting contrast from start to finish, going from sweet to dry. It’s a little pricey to be a regular pour, but well worth seeking out if you are fan of Maker’s Mark (or even if you weren’t before).

Maker’s Mark has been known almost exclusively for its 90 proof version through most of the brand’s history, but there have been higher and lower proof offerings for the export market. A few higher proof variants went to Japan almost 15 years ago, as reviewed here. In Australia, Maker’s went from 90 proof to 86 proof around the year 2000, and to 80 proof around 2010. Those changes probably had more to do with Australia’s proof-based import taxes than supply issues though.

The obvious conclusion from this tasting is that 90 proof is kind of a sweet spot for Maker’s, although higher proofs certainly don’t hurt it. The important questions lie in what the future holds for the brand. Current capacity of the distillery has been stated at 1.56 million cases per year. I’ll guesstimate that the barrel rinsing program boosted that by 5%, so maybe 1.64 million cases per year. 2013 sales were 1.4 million cases, and they have seen steady 15% annual growth since at least 2010. That means they’re pretty much maxed out now even if they had the foresight to maximize production six years ago. With the increased output of the third stillhouse not coming to maturation until 2021 and a failed attempt to lower the whiskey’s proof behind us, the only logical conclusion is that we will be coming into a period of rising prices and/or product allocation for Maker’s Mark.

No comments: