Friday, October 2, 2009

The Maker's Mark Dilemma.

On a recent webcast he hosted, Malt Advocate Publisher and Editor John Hansell tasted three different Laphroaig whiskeys and Maker's Mark, the one and only. "I kept thinking this past week how nice it would be to have more than one Maker’s Mark expression to choose from–especially given that there are so few wheated bourbons on the market," he wrote today on his blog.

Kevin Smith, Maker's Master Distiller, was also on the webcast. Smith demurred that "they are having enough trouble just making enough of the standard Maker’s to put out anything else." (Laphroaig and Maker's are Beam Global products and the webcast was the latest in a long series of bourbon-versus-scotch events staged to promote Beam products.)

The more nuanced position Maker's has expressed in the past is that offering different expressions would suggest that Maker's Mark is not already the best bourbon they can make, since if the additional expressions are not better than the standard, why bother to make them? Yet no one can deny that Maker's gets less coverage because of its lack of news. That's the Maker's Mark Dilemma.

Both sides have a point. To whiskey enthusiasts, it's not about 'best,' it's all about 'different.' I have had the experience of roaming through a whiskey warehouse, tasting the 'same' whiskey from different barrels. Inevitably, some tasted better than others, but the pleasure was in the multiple, different sensory experiences. In the real world, you do that by sampling different products of the same type which are, ideally, all as good as their makers can make them.

But that's whiskey enthusiasts. Not all whiskey drinkers are true enthusiasts. Many whiskey drinkers settle on a product they prefer and, in many cases, believe is 'the best.' Every producer tries to reinforce that choice. The Maker's brand personality, carefully cultivated since the brand was created in the 1950s, supports a belief that it is not just a very good bourbon but is, in fact, the ideal bourbon. As such, Maker's appeals to a consumer who seeks 'the best' in everything. Maker's has been very successful with that positioning and is loath to disturb it.

With Laphroaig and other single malts, the main variation is aging. According to the Laphroaig web site, they sell it at 10, 15, 18, 25, 27, 30 and 40 years-old. Is the 40-year-old the best? If price is any indication, yes.

Some American whiskey makers offer their product at different ages, but Maker's does not. When Maker's lets people taste its whiskey at an advanced age, say 10-years-old, as they have at whiskey festivals, their purpose is to show how bad it is, how you wouldn't want that, and why Maker's would never sell it.

A solution that would satisfy both camps might be single-barrel bottlings. Keep all of the offerings within the Maker's standard profile, but look for individual barrels that are both outstanding and clearly different from each other. Everybody understands barrel variation and even though Maker's tries to diminish it in the standard version, letting consumers taste what Maker's makers inevitably get to taste in the course of achieving the ideal would be consistent with the brand's personality and promise.

Production planning isn't the only crystal ball gazing whiskey makers have to do. They also have to predict future differences in consumer tastes and attitudes. Maker's Mark is a fine bourbon and most whiskey enthusiasts give it due respect, even though the brand doesn't give them the variety of experience they seek. Single-barrel bottlings might be a way for Maker's to have it both ways.


Max Watman said...

Single barrel Maker's is a great idea.

Years ago, someone slipped to me the idea that Maker's was considering selling their white dog, because they were having trouble keeping up. Their white dog is really good (admittedly I have certain proclivities), and I think if they sold it no one would confuse it. It's not really the same idea, but it'd put another Maker's label on the shelf.

Crash said...

Mr. Cowdery,

I've had the pleasure of tasting, once, the so-called Maker's Mark "Gold" label, a Japanese market bottling, either 100 or 101-proof.

It was fantastic, SO much more compelling than the standard MM that we get here in the U.S.

At the time, I thought to myself, "Why don't they sell this here, and just call it something like 'Maker's Mark Select' and just charge more money for it?" Most of the Bourbon enthusiasts that I know of would happily pay for it.

It's a shame, really. That higher-proof Maker's Mark was seriously delicious. It's too bad that most Maker's fans will never get to try it.

p_elliott said...


As I posted on I don't believe anyone markets a single barrel wheater bourbon. Is there a reason for that?


Chuck Cowdery said...

There is no single barrel wheater in general production but Buffalo Trace has done private selection single barrel bottlings of Weller Special Reserve, Antique and 12-year-old; and Van Winkle has done private selection single barrel bottlings of Lot B.

mwanning said...

Maker's Mark is batched in very small batches - so it is a small batch bourbon. Now in the "The Philosophy of Maker's Mark" at, it explains why Maker's cannot make a single barrel bourbon. (I was surprised - I was going to gig you about your own article, but it one of the few at the site you did not write.) Basically pull a single excellent barrel out of a small batch and you change the small batch. Of course that could be more of MM marketing hype.

In the article is mentioned 40 barrels a day as MM production. Is that before or after the 2nd distillery came on-line? Just a curious MM drinker.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That explanation is a bit glib. "Cannot" is certainly too strong. It's really just another way to say that any variation from the perfection that is Maker's Mark dilutes the brand. All of the facts are true, except a single barrel program would be a drop in the bucket, volume-wise, so any dilution would be very minor, i.e., imperceptible.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Actually, I think a Maker's "batch" is 1,000 gallons, which is about 20 barrels. So let's say they take one batch and instead of mixing those 20 barrels together, they release them as 20 different single barrel bottlings? That's what I'm proposing.