Thursday, February 21, 2013

Maker's Mark bucking the high-proof trend in bourbon

I bought a bottle of Maker’s Mark yesterday and checked the label. It still stated that the bourbon in the bottle is 45% alcohol by volume. That however is apparently going to change. The alcohol content of bourbon and other spirits is stated as either a percentage or as a proof. 45% alcohol is the same as 90 Proof. Maker’s Mark has announced that in an effort to meet rising demand it is going to reduce that alcohol content to 42% or 84 Proof.

In October I wrote of the trend to increase the proof of alcohol content in spirits, particularly bourbon. In the sixties a typical bottle of bourbon would be 86 Proof or 43% alcohol but over subsequent years proof was lowered to a fairly consistent 80 Proof. Now, as I noted, many distillers have increased proof to 90 or above.

Maker’s Mark now seems to buck that trend.

In a letter to customers, Rob Samuels, the company’s Chief Operating Officer stated: “Fact is, demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it, which means we’re running very low on supply.”

That proof reduction will be accomplished by watering the whiskey – fighting words in the saloons of the old west and also in Kentucky where Maker’s Mark is distilled. There has been an outcry from residents of the Bluegrass state and elsewhere. The Twittersphere exploded with the news.

However, all bourbon or other whiskey is watered. Bourbon is distilled at up to 160 proof (80% alcohol) and then has water added to arrive at the desired alcohol by volume content. The amount of alcohol is important not just because it gives bourbon its ‘kick’ but because alcohol is significant carrier of flavor. Finding the right balance makes all the difference in how enjoyable the bourbon is to the drinker. Many of us actually add some water to the whiskies we drink. A bit of water to a glass of Scotch or Bourbon can actually help release the flavor. Lyndon Johnson was famous for liking 'Bourbon and Branch Water'. Branch water is theoretically water from the same stream that the bourbon was distilled from.

Samuels states that he does not believe that the reduction in proof will negatively impact the flavor. He says that taste tests confirm that.

Global demand for bourbon has been increasing, particularly in India. Who knew? Part of that is the sweetness of bourbon when compared to other whiskies – Scotch or Irish whiskey, for instance. That sweetness is apparently favored by consumers in India.

We will see whether any other high-end bourbon distillers will follow suit.

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