By Richard Thomas
When Maker’s Mark backed off of plans to ameliorate their difficulties in meeting popular demand for their bourbon by watering down the proof of their whiskey, conspiracy wags immediately began crying foul, and more than a few more respectable pundits began likening it to the New Coke fiasco of the 1980s. Although superficially similar, labeling Maker’s Mark 86 Proof as the “New Coke of Bourbon” badly misunderstands both the problems confronting the Loretto, Kentucky distillery and the most famous campaign of the 1980s Cola Wars.
New Coke and the Cola Wars
First a little history lesson is due, given how badly some commentators seem to misunderstand the introduction of New Coke, one of the biggest marketing blunders in American history. As hard as it is to imagine now, Coca-Cola was steadily losing ground to Pepsi-Cola in the early 1980s, and based in part on flawed market studies, the company responded by introducing a product that (in my opinion) was more Pepsi than Pepsi. The result of pulling “Classic” Coke from the market and replacing it with New Coke was a huge popular backlash, prompting the company to reverse course in less than three months.
The popular myth that New Coke was a marketing stratagem meant to bolster Coke’s position is a perfectly reasonable exercise in cynicism, but entirely wrong. The introduction of New Coke was very much for real, and like most conspiracy theories, claims to the contrary have no hard evidence to support them. Most pertinent is the fact that in the 28 years since the New Coke fiasco, no Coca-Cola employee or contractor involved with the plan has said New Coke was anything other than a legitimate new product, and no documents to the contrary have surfaced either.
The Loretto Conspiracy?
The argument goes that Maker’s Mark scammed everyone with their switch to Maker’s 86 Proof because Maker’s, just like Coke, backed off their plan in a hurry and made a huge windfall in increased sales due to the publicity. As you have just read, using New Coke as a conspiracy model doesn’t carry any water.
Maker’s Mark undeniably confronts some very real supply problems, difficulties that have been several years in the making. Only a few days ago, the company announced it would resort to barrel rinsing to squeeze the last drops of alcohol from their barrels. Like Coke, they were trying to resolve a very real problem by cutting their whiskey a little more. Like Coke, they were not suicidal enough to stick to their plan in the face of overwhelming condemenation from their customer base. The similarities are there alright, but they have nothing to do with imagined marketing scams.
In retrospect, the only suspicious part of the Maker’s Mark 86 Proof controversy is how quickly they backed down from their plan to introduce the lower-cut bourbon. Yet even that merely suggests that Jim Beam and the Samuels Clan discussed in advance how to handle a major backlash. If the popular response to the lower Maker’s cut had been as muted as the response to similar moves by Jack Daniel’s, then Maker’s Mark 86 Proof would still be on store and bar shelves today.