Maker’s Mark recently announced it would drop the whiskey’s proof from 90 to 84 and then stumbled a bit before going back to its original recipe and apologizing for the mess it had caused along the way.  In that controversy, one of America’s truly great brands forgot — even if just for a day or two — what made it great in the first place.

Loretto, Ky., is a long way from my desk at this DC PR firm, but the lessons about branding, loyalty and love of an ideal apply almost anywhere in the world. In the end, it’s all about living up to the promises you and your brand make. And, in the case of Maker’s Mark, that means remembering where you’ve come from.

Getting started

Maker’s Mark is a small label today but started out even smaller. Back in late 1950s, Fourth-generation Kentucky distiller Bill Samuels hit on an idea for a new spirit. Samuels, like all Kentucky Bourbon men, knew his product took serious expertise to produce. Yet, Bourbon’s image was less than polished. Placed alongside the great whiskies of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands, Bourbon seemed rough-hewn stuff more suitable for a weekend bender than civilized imbibing. He wanted to produce something better.

Defining the brand

Samuels soon brought forth a sort of Bourbon most Americans had never seen. All real Bourbon had to start with corn. But unlike most people, he used wheat, not rye, to finish out the mix. The result was a remarkably smooth drink that critics soon compared to top-shelf Scotch and Cognac. Many writers proclaimed Maker’s Mark the smoothest, most refined American whiskey around.

Samuels was doing something that seemed new, yet was really very old and traditional. He decided the bottle itself should tell that story: With its hand dipped wax seal, woodcut lettering and faux-handmade paper label, it looked more like something from a chateau cellar than gin-joint bar. It was an instant icon for a whiskey.

The whiskey’s advertising was as simple as it was elegant. Ads were often nothing more than a photo of the bottle and five simple words: “It tastes expensive … and is.”

Building the mystique

Traditional Kentucky distilleries feature huge, wooden barns. More than a few whiskey makers feature them on their labels. By 1980 the Samuels family had not just a successful distillery but a picturesque facility that echoed their tradition of care. What better way to build that mystique than to invite their customers in for a visit? They petitioned for and won placement on the National Register of Historic Places and, soon after, began tours of the century-old grounds.

Defending the brand

The 1980s brought changes, among then a backlash against the often out-of-control social mores of the 1970s. Gone were two- and three-martini lunches. Anti-booze crusaders, appalled at the alcohol-fueled carnage on the roads, pushed through anti-drunk driving statutes across the nation. Many whiskey makers, sensing a new era of sobriety, lowered their alcohol content from 86 or 84 proof to 80. And Maker’s Mark? They stayed right where they had always been at 90 proof. Their fiercely loyal followers would have accepted nothing less.

Forgetting the way

The Samuels family sold their company to Hiram Walker in 1981, but kept a hand in the business. A series of transactions eventually placed them under the control of Beam, Inc. Aficionados might have feared the worst once the Samuels sold, but nothing much changed at Maker’s Mark. The taste stayed the same, the proof was unaltered and the bottle looked much as it always had.

Best of

all for the label, the new century brought with it a booming interest in super-premium whiskey – the very market that Maker’s Mark invented.

With all that interest it was only logical that Maker’s would want to stretch its supply if – and only if – they could do so without changing the taste they had perfected so many years ago. The Samuels were certain they had hit on the solution: A simple reduction of proof from 90 to 86 should do it with nary a change in the taste of the great whiskey they had always sold. So they did it. The backlash was intense.

Finding the path again

Maker’s Mark was probably correct in thinking it could dilute without anyone noticing. But being right wasn’t what mattered. Protecting the tradition of a business built on it was the central thing, and that meant 90 proof on the label, front and center. This time around the Samuels stumbled badly, and they took steps to correct it. Maker’s Mark drinkers can be glad they did.

They told the world about it. “Your trust, loyalty and passion are what’s most important. We realize we can’t lose sight of that,” the Samuels wrote on the Maker’s Mark website eight days after their first announcement. “Thanks for your honesty and for reminding us what makes Maker’s Mark, and its fans, so special.”