It has been a strange couple of weeks in the bourbon industry, as first Maker’s Mark announced that they were lowering the abv of their product from 45% to 42%, then a week later announcing that they weren’t going to change their abv after all. The reversal of their decision came after a frankly astonishing outcry from bourbon drinkers, all of whom seemed to feel disappointed at the thought of any change being made to this much loved product. The amount of press that this generated, as well as the buzz on facebook and twitter, highlighted the passion that people often feel about the brands they choose to drink.
I’ll admit that I was tempted to write an article straight away, not to jump on the bandwagon, but to put across both sides of the story. Sometimes brands feel that they have no choice but to change their products, to react to demand or even profitability, and sometimes a change does no harm at all. That being said, any changes to a brand, be it the packaging, the price, the recipe or the abv, can have an adverse effect. I decided to hold off on writing my article until emotions had calmed a little. Unfortunately by the time it was written, Maker’s had reversed their decision, but I still think this is a discussion worth having, so below you’ll find some of my thoughts on the American Whiskey brands that have changed their recipes over the last few years and the effect it can have.
Now I have to be very careful here, as my day job is as the European Brand Ambassador for Four Roses bourbon. So let me make this clear from the outset, I’m writing this with my b&t hat on, and I’m not here to bash brands in any way, shape or form. In fact I’m not even here to tell you that changing a products abv is a bad thing. There are two sides to every coin, and there are pros and cons to every decision, so below I hope you’ll find a balanced discussion piece, designed to get readers talking and thinking about bourbon and the changing face of the American Whiskey industry…
When a product is created, generally speaking a lot of thought goes into it, and one of the considerations is the strength that it should be bottled at. In basic terms the lower the abv the less intense the flavour, however a balance has to be found where the flavour is right but the alcohol doesn’t overpower the drink making it unpleasant to sip. Beyond flavour there is also the aspect of cost to consider, as in many countries duty is based on the alcohol content of the liquid in the bottle. It’s also important to remember that the lower the abv, the more bottles you get out of a batch of spirit, you are after all watering the liquid down and making it go further.
With bourbon in mind for many years the idea has circulated the drinks industry that an entry level product is usually 40% abv (the minimum by law that it can be bottled at) while premium bourbons are usually 45% abv or higher. These products command a higher price, but in general are more flavourful, full bodied whiskies, often with more age to them and therefore more complexity. I know this is a very general ‘rule’, but for a long time it has been accepted as a basic indicator of what separates entry level, from premium bourbons. In fact up until about 7 years ago there were several brands communicating this message to bartenders and consumers alike, in an effort to be seen as more premium products.
I guess one of the questions thrown up by Maker’s Mark considering lowering their abv is whether or not abv matters at all. If you read the original press release in which they stated they were lowering the abv to 42%, the company made the case that they had tried it extensively at 42% abv and there was no difference in taste compare to their original recipe. Now I haven’t tasted their product at 42% so can’t comment on how true or false this is, but common sense says that there must be some difference, and in fact anyone who has tasted whiskies extensively knows that adding even a tiny splash of water changes the flavour profile of the liquid. Sometimes this extra dilution can be a good thing, allowing the flavours to open up and taking away the burn from the alcohol, however it is also often the case that the extra dilution can work against the product in terms of how it stands up to further dilution if served on the rocks or used in cocktails. It’s certainly a fine line to tread.
It’s worth mentioning that Maker’s Mark aren’t alone in looking into lowering the abv of their product, in fact in the UK there are a few well known and respected bourbons that have already done the same, and Jack Daniels was amongst the first American Whiskies to do this. The reasons given by American Whiskey brands for lowering the abv vary greatly, but the fact is that with Maker’s almost following suit, it highlighted what can clearly be seen as a trend towards lower abv bourbons.
Historically Jack Daniels was bottled at 90 US proof, or 45% abv, until a decision was taken in 1987 to lower this to 43% abv. The lowering of the abv allowed them to sell their product at a more reasonable price, as well as allowing them to produce more bottles from each barrel of aged stock. It can clearly be seen as the point in time at which their volumes exploded and they took hold of the American Whiskey category and have ever since been the largest producer by far.
In 2002 they decided to go a step further and drop the strength of JD to 40%, making it truly affordable, and in fact the ‘go to’ house pouring product. It’s clear just by looking at the success they’ve had over the past decade that this decision has done them no harm whatsoever, as they sell in excess of 120,000,000 bottles a year world wide!
The next change of major note that we saw in the UK was when Woodford Reserve lowered their strength from 45.2% abv to 43.2%. The decision was based on economics, as the high duty rates for bringing this premium bourbon into the UK meant that they were faced with a choice between increasing the price of their product and making it less attainable, or making less profit on every bottle sold and making the brand less sustainable in the long term.
Woodford decided that a 2% decrease in alcohol content would be small enough to not damage the quality of the liquid, but would allow them to continue selling their bourbon at a reasonable price and profitability to satisfy all parties. Once again the change in abv, while drawing a bit of concern amongst bartenders at the time, did no harm to the brand and they continue to be a ‘benchmark’ of quality premium bourbon.
In 2008 Bulleit followed the trend and started selling their bourbon at 40% abv in the UK (while still selling in other markets at 45% abv), which allowed them to become a more mainstream product, competing for house pouring status in bars. In my opinion this is one of the few brands to have suffered in terms of reputation after making the change, as it is no longer viewed as such a premium product in the UK as it once was. It now sits in a middle ground where it is more expensive than many other 40% abv products, and clearly the bottle looks more expensive, and yet the quality perception is lower than the other premium products it once sat alongside of.
More recently Buffalo Trace also made a similar change to their bourbon by lowering it by 5% to 40% abv for the UK market. Rumours had been going around the trade for the best part of a year that this was going to happen, so there was far less of a buzz when the change was finally made last year. Having talked to a few of the decision makers at Buffalo Trace, they are very open about the fact that this was a choice made based on simple economics. With increases to duty in the UK, and needing to support the growth of their brand with more marketing and sales support, it would have been unprofitable for them to continue selling their bourbon at the same price and abv. The decision to lower the product was taken, as this was seen as being the best possible way to continue having their product available in a highly competitive market, without having to price it at a point where bars and consumers would think twice about paying for it.
I’ve been careful not to mention quality so far as this is a slightly loaded subject, but in fact it’s one that needs to be talked about. So here’s the thing; does lowering the abv of a spirit have a great impact on the quality, taste or perceived value of an American Whiskey?
There is no black and white answer to the question of how lowering the abv affects the product, but one thing seems clear to me, and that’s the fact that changing the abv of a spirit also changes the flavour profile. Now I’m not trying to call anyone a liar, but to imply that you won’t be able to tell the difference between one bottle at 45% abv and another that’s even 2% lower is wrong in my opinion. In fact to help me find out if the difference is noticeable to an untrained palate I drafted in the help of a couple of friends who are not in the drinks industry to do a blind tasting of American Whiskies at their original strength and their current bottling strength, and to sum up the results they spotted the difference in every single pairing. The objective of the experiment was simply to see if there was a difference or if the liquids tasted the same, and a much more in depth tasting is on the cards for the future and is a subject for another time.
Lowering the abv by even a small amount has an effect, this is something that I feel is beyond question, but the real issue to my mind is whether or not the difference is enough to make the product less premium, and if so should it be sold at a lower price to reflect that change in quality. All three of the brands that we tasted that night are still well respected and popular products that are enjoyed every day in bars and homes around the country. That being said to me they are not the same as they were when I first fell in love with them at their original bottling strength.
The change in abv doesn’t mean that they’re not still great products, it’s only one of a number of factors that contribute to their character. They still use quality ingredients, are well produced, carefully aged and nicely packaged. The liquid itself is still damned good Whiskey, and really I suppose that is the most important thing. But even having said that, I can’t help but feel that these brands have made a compromise, in terms of the original vision they had for their brands, and have lost something in the process. In fact this is at the heart of what caused so much outcry at the thought of Maker’s changing their product. Bartenders and consumers alike have bought into a vision of a premium brand that goes out of it’s way not to compromise from the original vision that the founder of their company set out with. For years people have bought Maker’s and felt like they could count on it to always remain the same, and here all of a sudden was a change that they didn’t want.
It’s an interesting thing to note that this is not by any means the first time that this trend has occurred in the bourbon industry, although the last time was for very different reasons. In the 1970s and 80s bourbon had fallen out of fashion, and brands were struggling to compete with the lighter spirits that had become popular at this time. With vodka growing at an astonishing rate, white rum and tequila arriving on the scene in a big way, and event the lighter style of Canadian whisky growing at a good rate, it seemed that no one wanted the big, bold, punchy style of American whiskey anymore. As the size of the category dwindled and the demand diminished, brands were forced to react on two fronts. Firstly they needed to make the spirit lighter in style than had been traditional in order to broaden the appeal, and many brands dropped from what had been the popular 96 US proof or 48% abv, all the way down to 40%. The need for this change was not just due to the change in drinking culture though, it was also a question of economics, and brands were having to compete on price as much as anything else to try and secure their slice of a rapidly shrinking pie.
The changes in strength and quality at this time have had an effect that is still felt today, with bourbon often being seen as a lower quality product than other whiskies, especially single malt Scotch, for example. As brands dropped their abv and their prices, people began to see American Whisky as being something cheap and inferior, and so the category continued to shrink.
Fortunately we’re now living in an era where the popularity of bourbon and other American whiskies is growing, and over the past couple of decades this has meant that more premium products have been able to find their way into the mainstream. Brands such as those mentioned earlier have benefitted from a resurgence of interest in the category, and people have been willing to spend more money on better quality products.
This success is also at the heart of the reason why brands now have to look at cost savings or stretching their supply of whiskey to go further. Now there are more premium bourbons on the market all with ambitions to grow into bigger brands. Once again there is competition in terms of price as many cocktail bars look to have premium bourbon at a pouring price. In order to meet the demands of bars, money is invested to keep these products at an affordable level, so profit margins get tighter, and now all of a sudden the numbers don’t stack up.
Likewise, as Maker’s have found, demand is often exceeding production. Bourbon being an aged product is always faced with the problem of trying to predict the future, because the liquid they distil today won’t be ready to drink for several years. The bourbon category has grown dramatically in the last few years, and it’s fair enough that many companies simply didn’t see it coming and are therefore finding that demand is outstripping the inventory they hold in their warehouses.
My one fear in the current trend is that so many compromises will be made that there will no longer be a clear line between what is a premium and an entry level product, and in the long run if more compromises are made, then quality will drop. Once this starts happening, it’s a downward spiral, and as history shows can lead to a category imploding instead of expanding.
From that point of view I’m happy that Maker’s Mark are sticking with their product at 45% abv. Can we really afford another premium brand to compromise its standards?
As I said at the start there are two sides to every coin, and when it comes to the changes that have been made to existing American Whiskies over the past few years, there are some important benefits that can’t be overlooked. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the viewpoint that if a brand is great the way that it is then it shouldn’t be changed or altered, but it’s not always as clear-cut as that.
You have to remember that the bourbon industry is a business, and that means that it has to make money as well as making whiskey. Many of the more premium brands of bourbon started small and were quite niche products, but have benefitted from the growth in popularity of their category. The truth is that it takes a lot of money to grow a brand, and as your product becomes more mainstream and popular, the marketing investment to sustain it against its competitors also has to grow. People hate to see a much loved product become more and more expensive, so the distribution, marketing and sales support that the brand owner puts behind their product eats into the profit line. In other words, a brand can become a victim of their own success and find itself selling more bottles but at much lower profit.
When faced with the prospect of making their product so expensive that less people will buy it, or selling lots of bottles but making no money, a choice has to be made. It’s easy to sit at home saying that this brand or that product has ‘sold out’ by changing their bottle, recipe or abv, but it’s not always that simple. If lowering the abv of your product by two or three percent, means that you can continue to sell it, and at a price where more people can enjoy your whiskey, then actually a brand might be making the right choice.
Of course purists would love to see brands that they love stay the same, and I’m sure that the people making the liquid itself feel much the same, but given the choice I would rather have Buffalo Trace at 40% abv, Woodford at 43.2% abv and would even rather have seen Maker’s at 42%, rather than not be able to buy them anymore as they’d gone out of business.
Yes lowering the abv is a compromise, but if that’s what it takes to keep a range of premium whiskies on our shelves then, it’s a compromise I’ll happily live with.
If the question is ‘should a brand lower the abv of their American whiskey?’, then what’s the answer? Well I guess the only way we’ll know is when we look back in 20 years time and either say that this is the era where bourbon lost it’s way, or this is the point at which the boom really began.
There are of course alternatives to changing your product, when faced with pricing pressures, or limited availability. There are brands that have chosen not to launch into new markets, as it would put to much pressure on their stock of aging whiskey and they might face shortages. Another option is to raise your price in order to maximise the profit that you make from a limited amount of liquid. Of course every company must make the choice that is right for them, and we as whiskey drinkers may from time to time be left to grumble about the fact that we wouldn’t have done it that way.
Personally I think that Maker’s Mark may have dodged a bullet by listening to their customers. Only time will tell, but personally I’m glad that we won’t be losing another product from that 45% abv group, as honestly, here in the UK there aren’t as many as I would like to see.
On the other hand I still enjoy Buffalo Trace at its current abv, and if I’d never tasted it at 45% I wouldn’t know it could be even better (in my opinion). I drink Woodford Reserve at 43.2% on a very regular basis, and enjoy it a great deal, it really still is a very premium bourbon indeed (but I’ll always have a bottle or two at the old 45.2% at home), Bulleit is now more of a mainstream product, but at 40% abv it’s great value for money for a good whiskey. Of course Jack Daniels now feels like it has always been 40%, and I’m probably showing my age for remembering it as a higher abv whiskey.
Personally I’ll stand by the decisions of all these producers, as I’d rather have them all here for future generations of bourbon drinkers to enjoy, rather than see them disappear. That being said I may still have the quiet grumble about the good old days when bourbon was stronger and I had less grey hairs in my beard, but that’s what us old timers do best!