Maker's Mark became one of the most recognizable names in bourbon by following a path most people would assume could only lead to disaster. Step 1: Create an unknown brand in a crumbling industry. Step 2: Charge a lot for your product. Step 3: Advertise that you charge a lot. Step 4: Fail to make much money for over two decades. It sounds like a strange path for the Samuels family, who started the distillery, to take, but along the way, Maker's helped resurrect bourbon from the dead.
The first bottle of Maker's Mark appeared in 1959, during a period of decline for many bourbon brands. A shortage of bourbon during Prohibition and World War II had turned many people on to different spirits. Bourbon brands were cutting prices and dropping their proofs as tastes veered toward lighter booze like blended Canadian whiskies and vodka. Bourbon was a downtrodden drink and a blue-collar buzz. It certainly wasn't the hip quaff that today's drinking cognoscenti obsess over as they exchange massive sums of cash for rare bottles.
Regardless, the Samuels family ignored bourbon's low status—they wanted people to think differently of the spirit. In an era when bourbon was considered a rough drink, Maker's substituted red winter wheat instead of some of the rye that gives most bourbons their spicy kick. Maker's certainly wasn't the first wheated bourbon, but the change gave it a smooth texture that made it distinct from much of its competition. Maker's also used a unique bottle, dipped in red wax just like a fine cognac, and charged a premium price. At the time, a lot of other bourbon brands charged whatever they thought people in motorcycle gangs would pay for a bottle.
The lack of name recognition and the high price meant low sales during the early years. Such struggles probably would have caused most business people to change course, but the Samuels decided to double down by emphasizing Maker's high price, which many would have considered its Achilles' heel. In 1965, Maker's released a bold advertising campaign: "It tastes expensive...and is."
This gamble failed to boost sales much at first—the brand's progress moved slower than a Kentucky drawl. Many in the bourbon business dismissed Maker's as the pet project of people with money to burn. Beer brewers at the time had a similar attitude toward Anchor Brewing Company founder Fritz Maytag, heir to the Maytag Appliances fortune. People mocked Maytag as some kind of hobbyist competing against corporate juggernauts like Anheuser-Busch. However, people criticized Maytag while ignoring the fact that he made excellent beer. Maker's was good bourbon, and the folks behind the spirit hoped that the high price would soon be considered an indicator of quality.
Maker's coupled its risky ad campaign with other savvy marketing schemes that began to slowly turn the company's fortune. The most successful of these was convincing airlines to serve Maker's, prompting those who tried it during flight to later ask for Maker's at their local liquor stores. This helped create demand while minimizing the normally high cost of expanding into different markets. The airline strategy also helped catch the attention of Wall Street Journal reporter David Garino. In 1980, Garino published "Maker's Mark Goes Against the Grain to Make Its Mark" on the front page, explaining how the rural distillery was finding success despite what most would consider missteps. The story helped spark an avalanche of orders the distillery could barely fill, marking the beginning of double-digit growth over the next two decades.
Garino's story also landed at the perfect time. A budding food movement had emerged during the 1970s, and American culinary classics were "rediscovered" by luminaries such as Alice Waters, Craig Claiborne, and Betty Fussell. The movement emphasized quality alongside a "back to basics" ethos aimed at the super-space-age food trends of the previous decades that brought us Tang, TV dinners, and astronaut ice cream. By the 1980s, people began swapping iceberg lettuce for arugula. On the drinkscape, they wanted better bourbon and got offerings such as Blanton's Single Barrel and Booker's. Maker's was a fresh start to the new decade, and helped lead the charge of an American whiskey renaissance that today is stronger than ever.
About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He's currently working on a book about bourbon. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire.