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Maker's Mark lowers proof rather than run out

Makers of aged bourbon didn't anticipate a surge in popularity in both the U.S. and overseas, so whiskey distilled years ago is running short.

UPDATE: The company that owns Maker's Mark is backing down from a decision to dilute its bourbon. On Sunday, Maker's Mark bowed to customer complaints and reversed their decision to weaken their bourbon: "Effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning."

If you're looking for industries that have thrived despite the economy, a good place to go is Kentucky. That's where they make bourbon, of course. Sales of the uniquely American spirit are growing by triple digits outside of the states. But there is a downside to all that growth. The company that owns Maker's Mark, the brand known for bottles that are hand-dipped in wax, announced it doesn't have enough supply to keep up with demand. So it's going to water it down.

For whiskey to be labeled bourbon, it has to be made from at least 51 percent corn, distilled at no higher than 160 proof, and be aged in a white oak barrel. It doesn't have to be made in Kentucky, but it does have to be made in the U.S.

Michael Veach is the author of "Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage." He says Maker's Mark is one of the few family-operated distilleries remaining in the United States. The distillery started making bourbon in 1954.

In recent years bourbon has been on a roll. "The problem is that these last 10 years the industry has been growing faster than anyone thought it would," Veach says.

That is a problem for aged whiskey like Maker's. The bourbon distilling now won't be out of the casks for another six years. Beam, Inc., which owns Maker's, says it hasn't made enough to keep up with demand. So Rob Samuels, the grandson of Maker's founder, announced a solution.

Maker's will lower the alcohol content by 6.6 percent by adding water to each batch. That could turn some loyal fans off the brand, which is why it made the announcement in an email to customers it calls ambassadors. Eric Mater is an ambassador in Kansas City. He subscribes to an email list and receives gifts each year like a knitted sweater for his bottle.

He made this suggestion to Beam, Inc.: "Maybe they should cut out the free gifts for the ambassadors and keep the bourbon at full strength."

And be warned if you're a bourbon drinker: the supply problem is industry-wide.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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