Maker's Mark and Kentucky-Gate: Original Proof vs Aborted Proof

Maker's Mark and Kentucky-Gate: Original Proof vs Aborted Proof

by Neal MacDonald

The interesting saga of Maker’s Mark has run its course. They announced that they were going to lower the proof on their bourbon from 90 to 84 and suffered a storm of social media abuse as their reward. The brand also achieved an unusually high visibility in the traditional media for a country also facing some kind of predictive economic Armageddon simultaneously in the face of North Korea nuclear tests. Though, those facts may help explain the national interest in higher proof bourbons in the first place. In any event, within a matter of days, Beam, Inc (who owns the brand) reversed the decision, announcing via press release on February 17, 2012:

"You spoke. We listened. And we're sincerely sorry we let you down. While we thought we were doing what's right, this is your brand - and you told us in large numbers to change our decision."

The original company position was to extend the supply of the bourbon in a way that “will enable us to maintain the same taste profile.” Of course, the social media response was predictable typified by: “I won’t buy watered-down bourbon!” (as reported via CNN Money).

This was an exhausting week for bourbon enthusiasts, who were suddenly faced with buying up lots of suddenly not-on-sale 90 proof Maker’s Mark in between screaming abuse through Twitter only to be left feeling suddenly vindicated but vaguely foolish after the quick capitulation by Beam, Inc. This leaves us with one question to investigate: was the sound and the fury over a 6.7% reduction in proof justified?

Can You REALLY Tell The Difference in Original Proof vs Aborted Proof?




Just Getting Drunk

Yes—get drunk faster


Sipping Neat

Yes—much more robust


Sipping with a little water

A Little—on the first glass


Sipping with it drowned in water


No—people fool themselves

In an Old Fashioned

Yes—detectable in the first drink


Mixed with Coca-Cola


No—people fool themselves

In a Mint Julep


No—not remotely


Difference is notable, particularly in purer drinks

First, some facts.

  • Bourbon is not technically “watered down” until it falls below 80 proof, upon which it is no longer bourbon.
  • Every bourbon that isn’t barrel proof is watered-down… in fact, distilleries go to great lengths to celebrate and protect the water that they use to blend down the bourbons to a more tolerable strength in the bottle.
  • Bourbon comes in quite a wide variety of proofs going from 80 (and, in fact, lower in some flavored versions) all the way up to “barrel proof,” which tends to linger in the 120s and even 130s.
  • The largest selling bourbon in the world is Jim Beam white label, sitting proudly at 80 proof.

As you can see in the chart below, while bourbon comes in a wide range of proof it is certainly true that the more elite bourbons almost uniformly come in higher proofs. In this chart, we show from our database of 195 separate labels of bourbon the wide variability. Note: if this were represented by sales, the 80 proof would absolutely dominate… but this is about consumer choice and sophisticated taste. Here you see there’s a large spectrum of bourbon available when the would-be purchaser is examining a shelf of whiskey.


Distribution of Proof Across All Bourbons


Preliminary Judgment : Maker’s Mark, by lowering its proof, most certainly moved itself away from the elite class of bourbons and more towards the entry class… a position not supported by its claim to top-shelf status. Moving to 84 proof would have put Maker’s Mark in the lower quartile of all bourbons. (Please note: our database tracks a wide variety of whiskey including craft products that aren’t available in all areas; we also don’t pretend to represent all bourbons everywhere… just a lot of them and certainly enough to present the argument.)

The more important issue, though, is taste. Can one truly appreciate the difference between these two proofs or, as Matt Shattock of Beam, Inc claimed, is there no difference in taste? We acquired a bottle of the 84 proof variety (hereafter known as Aborted Proof)—which was surprisingly common on the shelves—as well as a bottle of the 90 proof version (hereafter Original Proof) and put them to the test. The goal here wasn’t to determine which is better but rather whether a person can credibly claim to know the difference.

Just Getting Drunk: of course, if your goal is to simply get inebriated, then you can tell. When you examine the BAC tables, it takes about 75ml of pure alcohol to get you to 0.10 BAC (or legally drunk just about everywhere). For beer, that means (at, say, 4% ABV) roughly 29ml of alcohol in each bottle of beer so about 3 beers drunk in quick succession would put you over the limit. Meanwhile, it would take 3.33 drinks of Maker’s Mark Original Proof at 45% ABV to get to 0.10 BAC. Alternatively, it would take 3.66 drinks at the Aborted Proof levels to reach that same degree of intoxication. Very roughly, after about 5-6 drinks on a long-night binge, you’ll be about a drink behind on the aborted proof. Therefore, it most definitely matters to the drunkard.

Neat: perhaps the most obvious test is to drop these bourbons in a small glass and throw it back. While Maker’s Mark is known for a smoother profile to begin, judging by alcohol burn should prove interesting.

Nose: there is most definitely a difference in the smell… a much lesser bourbon aroma. It’s softer, less emphatic, and undeniably less present.

Front Palate: both have a sweet, caramel and honey notes characteristic of bourbon.

Mouthfeel and Finish: The Original Proof has a much richer, fuller flavor. On savoring the whiskey (the good old “Kentucky chew”) the oak-flavors famous for bourbon sing in the mouth due to the extra bit of whiskey.

Verdict: tasting neat, there is categorically a big difference between these two whiskeys. This is unsurprising… after all, if you were to remove 6%-7% of your morning coffee grounds out of your coffee, we suppose you’d be able to discern the weaker coffee as well. We’re not quite ready to claim these taste like different whiskey altogether but we feel the claims of “watered down” are somewhat justified here. Big difference.

With Water: so if one can tell the difference in the glass presented unadorned, what about when facing dilution? We tested first under a sophisticate’s amount of dilution: 1 single ice cube representing 15ml (about ½oz) of water.

Nose: the difference in smell persists under a little bit of water, though less marked. One thing, the wheat comes out much more with a little water… almost like smelling a wheat cracker with the Aborted Proof. The Original Proof still maintains a whiff of its oak-flavored bourbon-ness.

Front Palate: the Aborted Proof is weakened in water, carrying its wheat qualities fleetingly… the Original Proof retains more bourbon-ness. But the difference is much subtler.

Mouthfeel and Finish: it’s on the finish that the Original Proof really separates itself. The Aborted Proof delivers and vanishes like a thief in the night—one might almost be drinking a light beer. Meanwhile, the Original Proof stays for a little cuddle after delivering… a quality we feel most whiskey drinkers are looking for.

Verdict: with dilution, we’re beginning to close the gap between Original and Aborted Proof. We still feel that committed bourbon drinkers will be able to tell the difference—at least on their first glass—but probably would quickly lose track. Some difference.

With Water, Redux: not everyone is a sophisticate… many times, bartenders will serve “on the rocks,” meaning a slew of ice in a glass followed up with a pour of bourbon. Our definition of “slew of ice” was 110ml of water, which was what a rocks glass with ice melted down to. Of course, seldom does one let the ice fully melt before drinking but we assumed that the case here. The result was almost 3:1 water to whiskey. We called this: the Airport Pour.

Nose: interestingly, the great lot of water really pulled out the honey aromas. It smelled great… almost like smelling a jar of honey. There was no difference that we could discern.

Front Palate: again, a nice honey flavor and a very light taste… again, almost like drinking beer. This was a surprisingly pleasant drink. We have new respect for the Airport Pour. However, no difference could be detected.

Mouthfeel and Finish: if a difference was to be seen it was on the finish. We felt we could detect the barest whisper of a bourbon claim on the Original Proof that was missing in the Aborted. Put to the trial, a strange thing happened. Blindfolded, we flipped a coin 10 times and presented a style randomly to the drinker and, in the event, of the 10 tries they had a 50% success rate in correctly identifying the proof… that is, no better than random. We have to say no difference.

Verdict: The committed whiskey drinker might feel—might even insist—that they can detect a difference. Maybe the true expert can. We, with our half-dozen years of trying and assessing scores of different whiskeys, could not. No difference.

In Coke: perhaps this is a bit of a heresy but people do mix their Maker’s Mark and we sought to test it in the corn-syrupy maelstrom of Coca-Cola. Here, 1½oz of bourbon to 3½oz of cola. Good freaking luck, the gallery said.

Nose: forget about it.

Front Palate: why do people drink this? This is just not a good use of Coke or bourbon. At minimum, we could tell that we were drinking whiskey and not rum… but after that, not so clear.

Mouthfeel and Finish: damn it all if we didn’t think there might be a whisper of a difference on the finish. Yeah, we’ve said this before and proven ourselves wrong. So let’s try again: 10 coin flips to the blindfolded would-be expert. Well, we bullshitted ourselves. Again. As it happened, we had success rate of only 40% (4 correct out of 10 tries)… a little worse than pure chance would suggest.

 Verdict: based upon our own empirical evidence and a slight dismay in our own palates, we have to say No difference.

Old Fashioned: how about a classic cocktail? We would normally go to a rye-influenced bourbon rather than wheat but here made the classic cocktail with a bit of sugar (we used agave syrup), garnish of lemon and orange, with orange bitters. Knowing that chilling reduces flavors (typically), we opted to blend with ½ ounce of water rather than shaking on ice to preserve a constant ambient temperature for assessment.

Note: Anybody who claims that they can smell the difference here is either a deity or a liar.

Front Palate: this is a nice drink even if the wheat is a little boring in comparison to rye but a nice citrus / orchard scent.

Mouthfeel and Finish: dissension here… that ever present finish makes people think and claim that they can tell the difference. Others now skeptical. Back to the lab we go. Now this is wild… out of 10 tries we had a 90% success rate in detecting the difference—all due to a notional weaker character in the finish and the alcohol burn. While our confidence wasn’t necessarily high, our results were striking.

Verdict: We have to go with some difference here, due to the lab results. However, presented with one cocktail after the other in a bar, we have to say there’s no way you’d notice.

Mint Julep: Lastly, the mighty drink that all Kentucky cocktails must answer to. This has it all: herbs, lots of ice, and sugar to drown out the bourbon. We made ours with half-cup of actual shaved ice to go with ½oz of mint syrup (we used fresh mint infusing a simple syrup), 1½oz of bourbon.

Nose: Maybe we know this is whiskey… that’s about it.

Front Palate: nice mint and sweetness… the Derby folk know what up for drinking in the afternoon. But we can’t tell a difference.

Mouthfeel and Finish: Here’s the big moment… is that finish difference—mythical or real in the other drinks—present here? Absolutely not. No one here claims to be able to tell any difference between the two. We didn’t even go to the lab. No difference.

Judgment: overall, this is an exercise that is unavoidably hair-splitting in nature. Trying tell the difference in taste based only upon proof is somewhat daunting to begin with. However, acknowledging that, there is a palpable difference in taste. There’s no denying it and Beam or Maker’s Mark would be foolish to insist otherwise. That said, the difference is often subtle and diminishes quickly in cocktails that have higher proportions of mixers… as common sense would certainly suggest. In the final assessment, one buys an elite bourbon for its test and its theater… both of which are well-served by higher proofs that can withstand more dilution in various cocktails. For that reason—along with empirical evidence—we commend the social media outcry over the insult done to the traditional bourbon and are glad the suits in New York relented.

[Disclosures: nothing free here, we purchased everything ourselves.]

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