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.