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Why is Maker’s Mark watering down its bourbon?

To meet growing thirst for the retro tipple, premium distillery Maker’s Mark has announced it will water down its bourbon.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Bourbon drinkers are having too much of a good thing. The spirit's surging popularity – driven by global demand and abetted by Don Draper's fondness for Old-Fashioneds – has led to a shortage of the oaky American whisky, which has to be aged for at least two years.

To meet growing thirst for the retro tipple, premium distillery Maker's Mark has announced it will water down its bourbon, National Public Radio reports.

The fine print on the Maker's Mark label will say "84 proof" instead of the traditional 90.

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The change will likely be undetectable to hipsters who recently latched on to the bourbon boom. But in Kentucky, which counts more barrels of bourbon than people, the company's decision to weaken its whisky amounts to a blight on the state's southern heritage.

"It's gotten … a lot of outrage," says Sara Havens, who covers the bar scene for the Louisville Eccentric Observer. "People asking if they're going to lower the price now, [or] just that it's kind of not fair."

Bourbon's smoky-molasses flavour was long forgotten during the bland vodka craze of the late 1990s and early noughties. But global demand for bourbon and Tennessee whisky has soared in recent years, spurred by lower tariffs, a weaker U.S. dollar and growing middle classes in developing markets, Ad Age reports.

American whiskies, including bourbon, make up nearly 70 per cent of the United States' overall distilled spirits exports. On Friday, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States projected a third-straight record year of export growth led by "the continuing strength and appeal" of American whiskies.

Ads in countries such as Germany, Australia and Japan capitalize on bourbon's down-home cachet. Three elements make bourbon unique, notes the New York Times: American corn, pure limestone water and new, charred oak barrels. In 1964, U.S. Congress decreed that "bourbon whisky is a distinctive product of the United States."

Could watered-down bourbon remove the spirit's whiff of authenticity? Comments at the Atlantic suggest Maker's Mark would have been better off raising the price rather than messing with the product.

But higher prices wouldn't necessarily solve the bourbon shortage. Maybe it's time for Don Draper (and legions of wannabes) to lay off the sauce.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More


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