Whiskey is the drink of choice for today’s 20 and 30-somethings. While their parent's generation rebuffed whiskey as “what old men drank at the country club,” It is not uncommon to see an urban pub filled with 20-somethings—all with a tumbler of brown brew in one hand, and their iPhone in another. Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales and profit are growing higher and higher.
And Maker’s Mark has done well by this group. The square bottles sealed in red wax and made at a distillery near the small town of Loretto, Kentucky are iconic among this certain generation. The bourbon ages in barrels for at least six summers and no longer than seven years before bottling.
But a week ago the company announced they were lowering the amount of alcohol volume from 90-proof (45%) to 84-proof (42%). It marked (pun intended) the first time the nearly 60 year-old bourbon brand would alter its proof/alcohol volume.
The reason the company gave for the drop? A supply shortage.
It seems that Maker’s Mark is currently so popular that it has struggled to keep up with demand. The increased demand led to expansion plans, but a shortage of bourbon created a bottleneck (more puns I’m afraid) in distribution. It was quite a conundrum for the brand. To satisfy the thirst for the brand, they curtailed shipments to some overseas markets, then they hatched the plan to lower the amount of alcohol in every bottle in order to stretch the supply.
Unfortunately, consumers saw the issue as “watering down” their drink of choice, rather than an issue of supply and demand. The company said they were trying to stretch the available product without altering the taste of the bourbon. Unfortunately they didn't consider the emotional attachment that customers have to the brand and its composition.
When word spread that the recipe would change, customer reaction was immediate. Company officials heard from "thousands and thousands of consumers" who were not fans of the change.
"We've been tremendously humbled over the last week or so," Rob Samuels, Maker's Mark's chief operating officer and grandson of the brand's founder, said of customers' reactions. "Our focus was on the supply problem. That led to us focusing on a solution," he said. "We got it totally wrong."
Maker’s Mark learned a lesson in the power of communal voice among 20-somethings. They get what they want, and if a brand is going to change something, they need to be involved in the decision. In a tweet Sunday, the company said to its followers: "You spoke. We listened."
The company has reversed plans to lower the bourbon volume. "We really made this decision after an enormous amount of thought, and we focused on the wrong things," Samuels said.
It was a nasty stumble on their part, but it seems that all is now right again in the land of whiskey.
Time for a drink.