Maker's Mark Leaders "Humbled" But Ready to Move Forward After Recent Setback

Feb 18, 2013

Rob Samuels (left), and Bill Samuels, Jr. at Maker's Mark offices in Loretto
Credit Kevin Willis

WKU Public Radio spoke Monday with two Kentuckians who were the key players behind a decision to lower the proof of Maker's Mark, one of the most famous bourbons in the world.

After being overwhelmed by negative reaction by fans, Maker's Mark Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels and his father, Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr., reversed course Sunday and announced they would leave Maker's Mark at 90 proof.

The Samuels initially decided to lower the proof in order to bottle more bourbon to meet growing demand in the U.S. and internationally.

Here are some excerpts of WKU Public Radio's conversation with the Samuels:

Rob Samuels, Chief Operating Officer of Maker's Mark:

"My father and I, and the team here at the distillery, spent a lot of time on... could we extend the supply and maintain the taste--and that's where we spent all of our time and attention. Because we received a lot of feedback from bartenders, restaurateurs, and package store owners that were having trouble getting Maker's Mark, and they were very unhappy and confused by that."

"But since the announcement a week ago, we've been humbled by the overwhelming response from thousands and thousands of our very loyal customers, and we've heard them very loud and clear. They've spoken, and we've listened, and they were right. And that led to our decision to return Maker's Mark to 90 proof. In fact, what we're bottling today at the distillery in Loretto is 90 proof Maker's Mark."

Has the Maker's Mark brand been weakened by this episode?

"I think anytime your customers speak as clearly as they have, and we've listened and responded quickly, that's a very good thing."

When you took over as head of Maker's Mark in 2011, you told WKU Public Radio you were actively seeking out international markets that you thought were strong potential growth spots for your bourbon. But, by your own admission, you aren't able to satisfy demand domestically. Do you still plan to move ahead with shipping more of your whiskey overseas?

"The growth in the U.S. has surged, which limits our available supply. And we've absolutely had to moderate the growth for countries where we provide Maker's Mark. There's huge interest in almost every developed country in the world, and we simply don't have enough to be where all of the demand is, so we have to make those tough choices."

Maker's Mark is aged in barrels for nearly seven years. So it's very different from, say, if you were making shoes, and suddenly your product explodes in popularity, and you add more shifts of workers to turn out more shoes. You can't do that with bourbon. You're having to guess today how much product you want to put away for six, seven years from now when it's finished. So how do you forecast that?

"We try to stay as connected as we can with our consumers, and they have always given us a pretty good indication of the level of interest and opportunity. And that's what we missed seven years ago. We never dreamed, looking into the crystal ball, that the acceleration within the bourbon category would happen as it has."

"Bourbon as a category has transitioned from a sluggish, lowest-growth category within spirits to the very fastest growing category size within spirits. And that growth has just amplified what we've experienced with Maker's Mark, and we weren't prepared for it."

Maker's Mark Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr., father of Rob Samuels:

"We have a habit down here of telling our customers what we're going to do. And so when this decision was made, we didn't try to slip it under the radar screen, we actually told them. And so the reaction we got was intensified by the fact that they all found out at the exact time."

"It took me about two or three days to get over the hurt, and when I started listening, it actually started to feel pretty good, that these people actually cared enough to tell us that we have screwed up in a major way."

Was there any lower-proof Maker's bottled and labeled? And if so, what will happen to it?

"There was some shipped to a few markets, I'm not sure which ones. It was a relatively small amount. We've had calls coming in here, and it's collectors who are actually looking for the bottles."

When you spoke to WKU Public Radio in 2011, you said you were aware that you could sell triple, quadruple, maybe ten times the amount of bourbon you currently sell. But you mentioned that you wanted Maker's Mark to grow slowly and strategically. Do you now wish you had ramped up production in a big way five, six, seven years ago?

"Maybe by one or two percent. And that's about it. If I had to pick one thing to go on my tombstone, it would be "Chief Forecaster for 40 Years." We didn't get it right every year."

"The good news is, all of our customers, the big thing that they are saying to us is they'd much rather have that occasional "out of stock" than they would have us mess with their whiskey."

There's that old saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity. After this episode, do you believe that?

"I think I may have to go on vacation. No, I don't know. Given the choice, I would rather have not sustained the wound. But where we are right now, with the wonderful response from our customers is just...well, it just really makes me feel good. Because I've been at this for almost 50 years."

"But I sure wouldn't have planned it."