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The Maker’s Mark debate: Since when did ABV become a reason to buy?

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Maker’s Mark is taking plenty of heat over its decision to lower the alcohol content in order to satisfy global demand. But given that bourbon’s ABV can range from 80 to 160, is this really that big a deal?

Update: Shortly after this story broke, Maker's Mark fans made their objections known, and the company is backing off its announced plan. Maker's Mark CEO Rob Samuels, in a letter to ambassadors worldwide, said:

"Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand—and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.

So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45 percent alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.

The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker’s Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you’d even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we'll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery.

Your trust, loyalty and passion are what’s most important. We realize we can’t lose sight of that. Thanks for your honesty and for reminding us what makes Maker’s Mark, and its fans, so special.

We’ll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created. Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.

As always, we will continue to let you know first about developments at the distillery. In the meantime please keep telling us what’s on your mind and come down and visit us at the distillery. It means a lot to us.

There’s plenty of hand-wringing going on this week over the announcement that Maker’s Mark will be reducing the amount of alcohol in its ultra-popular bourbon so that it can continue to meet increasing demand.

The product is currently sold at 90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; the new Maker’s Mark would top out at 84 proof, or 42 percent ABV.

Some purists are outraged, arguing that this is tantamount to a bartender watering down drinks. They worry that Maker’s Mark may be damaging their reputation in the bourbon world by such an action.

Truthfully, I see this as having little to no effect on the brand’s popularity. In fact, it allows me to bring up a point about bourbon, and spirits in general, that is rarely discussed: ABV is not the point!

It feels more and more like we’re becoming an ABV-obsessed society, comparing the alcohol content in our beers, wines and spirits as if they meant something. Isn’t taste ultimately the point of all this imbibing? And nowhere is the ABV argument more apropos than the bourbons world; One of the qualifications for bourbon is an ABV between 80 proof and 160 proof. That’s a huge chasm for exploration, and for me, the most exciting part about bourbon drinking. I’ve had bourbons as low as 80 proof and as high as 143 proof, and they are all ones I would gladly revisit.

I don’t dispute that 80-proof bourbons present a flavor challenge. Even Basil Hayden’s, which comes with a somewhat hefty price point, doesn’t really pop for me. But once you get a bit higher, the flavor profiles are limitless. Evan Williams Single Barrel, which comes in at about 86 proof (and is actually cheaper than Maker’s Mark), has ridiculous amounts of flavor. Some have suggested they go higher in ABV, but what’s the point if the product is excellent?

And let’s not forget the number of bourbon drinkers who either have their drink with a splash of water or mix it in Manhattans and the like. These customers will probably never notice a significant change.

But for those who feel they’re being cheated by Maker’s Mark and want a comparable product at a comparable price, I’ve got a few recommendations: EVSB (the 2003 just came out); Eagle Rare 10 Year, an excellent value at 90 proof; Wild Turkey 101 (for under $20). If you want to go up in price a bit but still remain under $40, Johnny Drum, Pure Kentucky XO, Elijah Craig 12 Year and Elmer T. Lee are all excellent choices.

The point is this: Ignore the numbers; concentrate on the quality. You’ll find your local bourbon retailer has plenty of the latter.

As for Maker’s Mark? If anything is hurting this brand right now, it’s that confusing advertising slogan, “It is what it isn’t.” Maybe I’ll have some bourbon and see if I can figure it out …

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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