This week, ubiquitous middle-shelf bourbon Maker's Mark announced that it would be watering down its whiskey from 90 proof to 84 proof in order to meet demand. Not surprisingly, everybody freaked out. That's dumb. Here's why.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. What percent more am I going to have to drink?
Nine out of ten Maker's drinkers would never notice the difference between an 90 proof and an 84 proof version. It's not because they lack a sophisticated palate, either. It's because the overwhelming majority of people drink Maker's on ice, with soda, or in a cocktail. All of these methods of consumption have been adding water to the mix already. That's not an unfortunate byproduct. It's Flavor 101.
Alcohol burns your tongue, overwhelming your tastebuds with pain. When the alcohol is diluted you are much more capable of detecting its subtle flavors. Dude-bros may howl at this, but it's true. Even scotch, a drink for purists, is traditionally served with water. Yes, in Scotland. In fact, this tradition dates back centuries. After the failed Scotish rebellion of in the late 1600s, Scots were required to toast the King of England when they drank. Instead, they would raise their glasses over the water on the table. That way when they said, "To the King," they were really saying, "To the King over the water," referring to the Stuarts living in exile.
Personally, I like my scotch neat, or with maybe a drop or two of water, but by and large, that's not how Maker's is consumed. It's not a sipping whiskey. So, really, the only people it will affect will be bartenders, who will have to add slightly less mixer (again, we're only talking three percent here), or shake/stir the drink for a slightly shorter amount of time. If Maker's on the rocks is your drink, it will just be like the ice was put into it 30 seconds earlier. Customers definitely wouldn't notice the difference in a cocktail.
Bourbon-making is a slow process. The fermentation and distillation all happen over just a few days, but bourbon must then be aged a minimum of two years in new, charred wood barrels until it hits somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 proof. Once it's done maturing, the distilleries add water the until the solution has the proof you see when it's bottled on the shelf (typically 80 proof, or 90 proof for makers, some "cask-strength" editions go up into the mid-hundreds, though). This is the stage where the extra water has been added to increase the distillery's output.
But if you're furious about Maker's Mark changing it's flavor, sorry, you're already too late. In recent years, again, in an attempt to meet demand, Maker's Mark shorted its barrel-aging process. Traditionally, the spirit was left to age in barrels for nearly seven years, but not long ago they lowered it to under six. That barrel-aging is where bourbon gets its color and i's smokey, woody flavors. Taking a year off the process absolutely alters the amount of flavors a spirit could inherit from the wooden walls. So they've already bucked tradition.
Yeah, it's a matter of opinion, but now might be a good time to remind you that you've always been able to do better than Maker's for the money. Bulleit, for instance, generally costs a few bucks less, is almost as easy to find as Maker's, and has a much more complex flavor profile. For most mixed drinks, for bourbon on the rocks, and even for sipping neat, Bulleit outguns Maker's pretty handily.
Unfortunately, Maker's Mark has become such a well-known brand that you end up paying a premium for the name. It ain't worth it. There are a lot of better whiskies than Maker's that cost the same, and if you're willing to go up in price, the sky is the limit. Don't think of this is the end of your affair with Maker's Mark. Think of it as the beginning of a whole new world of whiskeys just waiting to be explored.
UPDATE: Due to massive outcry, Maker's was like, "Oh, hey, just kidding guys. Please don't hate us?" So, no watered-down Maker's after all. The good news is that we still got a Taiwanese animation out of the deal, complete with butt-chugging.