View Full Version : A Most Excellent Essay

Nicholas Carey
03-02-2013, 12:52 PM
...on the recent Maker's Mark debacle:


The Wu of Maker's Mark

For what shall it profit a man
if he shall gain the whole world,
and lose his own soul? ~ Mark 8:36

Never mind whiskey aficionados; tongues on even vodka lovers were wagging earlier this month over a rare public relations stumble in Kentucky. Rob Samuels, COO of Maker's Mark, announced that the alcoholic strength of the company's signature bourbon was to be lowered from 90 proof to 84 proof.

The company had announced, quite literally, that it was watering down the product.

The ensuing uproar was immediate, vocal, and sustained. On Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, indignant fans deplored the decision and excoriated the firm. Bartenders who prefer overproof spirits that can stand up to the dilution of mixers and ice in cocktails bemoaned the new direction. Users howled indignation and pundits prognosticated the future of the brand (opinions ranged from “I’ll never buy Maker's again” to “In a year, who will even remember?”). It became a national story. Up in Vermont, WhistlePig vowed to increase the proof of its rye whiskey. I stayed mostly mum on the topic. Regardless of what others recalled next February, I would remember who did this.

I was struck immediately by the resonance of Samuels' announcement with Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle. The book depicts a world in which Germany and Japan emerge victorious in World War II. Between them, they conquer and divide a disgraced former United States. I must have been ten when I read it first, but Dick's depiction of wu — a slippery concept applied to handcrafted jewelry in the book, but applicable to whiskey here — has stayed with me for more than thirty years.

It wasn’t indignation over the decision to dilute the whiskey or even anger, really, I felt. Rather, it was sadness. Another layer on our ever-thickening patina of loss. True, Americans have experienced great gains in recent decades in fields such as medicine, technology, and publishing. But we have suffered a concomitant erosion of our greatness. Heroes once idolized have been exposed as flawed — sometimes deeply flawed — humans; OJ Simpson, Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, John F. Kennedy, Michael Vick. Endless obstructionist caviling among our politicians have led many to despair that we will ever be better off than our parents.

Our entertainment has grown recursive; witness the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Arthur, The Karate Kid, or Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene reshoot of Pyscho, movies that did not need to be remade, that arguably should not have been remade, that do not leave the world a better place in their passing. Our homes, by and large, are not built as well as those of a hundred years ago. On it goes. NASA's space program: gutted. New Orleans: flooded and nearly lost to us. The lunacy of creationism taught as fact to defenseless children who will be unable to compete for jobs as adults because they simply will not understand how the natural world works as well as their grandparents did.

Into this morass steps Maker's Mark with another assault on our faith in the goodness of humanity. And why? Why reduce the proof of this iconic whiskey? Profit. Global thirst for American whiskey has grown steadily in recent years and supply has not consistently kept pace with demand. Maker's in particular has experienced shortages, despite a 2012 expansion that increased production capacity by some 45%. Watering the whiskey was seen as a way to increase almost instantaneously the available inventory by 6%.

Deplorable things happen. Every day. Drove my Chevy to the levee and all that. But it's not all odious Kardashians, pedophile priests, and watered down whiskey. Not even close. There are good things as well. Whether it's the residuum of my midwest upbringing or a Catholic education that drives me to be what the Jesuits dubbed a man for others, I choose to spend time making and pursuing things that make the world better. As the California designer Mike Monteiro writes in Design in a Job, "[Y]ou are responsible for what you put into the world...and you can only stand as proud of the work as its benefit to society entitles you to." Amen, brother. Whether it's websites or whiskey, we shoulder a moral responsibility for what we bring into the world.

For the past twenty years or so, there's usually been a bottle of Maker's knocking around the house, but when Samuels made his initial announcement, my thought simply was to abandon the label quietly. No point in making a fuss. I'd never tasted the lower-proof version and the erosion of quality is arguable. We were assured the taste was nearly identical. That was beside the point. For decades, Maker's has presented itself using the language of heritage, tradition, and craftsmanship, a brand — a family — hitched to the yoke of history. Through it all, that squat bottle with its red wax top remained unchanged. The trope of Maker's as custodian to an unbroken legacy of quality suffuses marketing materials, bottle design, and even the grounds of the distillery itself which in 1980 was declared a National Historic Landmark. Your haircut, your president, and your wife may change, but Maker's would always be Maker's.

Until the day it wasn't, the day we were told it was to be cheapened for the masses. And that brings us back to Dick's novel.
See more at: http://matthew-rowley.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-wu-of-makers-mark.html#sthash.ddvhNB8q.dpuf