Watered Down

True story: my husband and i were out having dinner at a nice restaurant. Which is hard to find in the desert suburbs. There’s an Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and TGi whatever on every corner, but anything without a namebrand can’t seem to afford the real estate. Anyway–if i recall, it was our first night out after the second baby. It was a spur of the moment thing.  We called a last minute babysitter and were instantly transported to a leather booth with mood lighting and an excellent steak. On a weeknight. For new parents? Heaven.

After a really good meal, we decided to treat ourselves to some ‘dessert’ bourbon. We were going to share a shot on the rocks (which means that we’d share one and then probably order another…) So we asked our server about their top shelf bourbon selection. And he said–I swear, he looked us right in the eye, and said–“We have a really nice Crown Royal Blend that’s from…”

“Let me stop you right there,” says my husband. Then he looks at me and says “Do you want to tell him, or should I?”

So I say to the waiter (nicely, i promise!) “Here’s the thing. We’re from Kentucky. Crown Royal is from Canada. If it’s not from Kentucky, it’s not bourbon.” He looks flumoxed. “It’s Canadian” I emphasize. “That’s not bourbon, it’s bathwater. And a bathwater blend, at that.”

“Just ask the bartender,” says my spouse. “We’re not in a hurry. Believe me, we have two screaming babies at home. We have all the time in the world.”

Guy comes back with a report that there is, in fact, some Woodford in the house. “Now you’re talking,” said the Kentucky patrons (who really are not jerks and did leave a very nice tip–plus an education in authentic spirits).

The moral of the story? You do not mess with a Kentuckian’s booze. We take quality control very seriously.

Which is why the world lost its mind last week when the boss of Maker’s Mark announced that they would be reducing the alcohol content from 45- to 42%. This was in response to increasing demand and limited supply.  For you experts, that means the 90-proof becomes 84-proof, or roughly the product of letting several ice cubes melt in your glass. There’s more of it, but it isn’t quite the same.

The company has since reversed its decision, after overwhelming negative feedback from consumers. Smart move on their part, really. Like i said, you don’t tinker with perfection. Especially in the Bluegrass.

My friend Julie wonders how much good might be affected in the world if we all got as riled about human trafficking or poverty as we do when somebody messes with our liquor. Fair point. Even in Kentucky, a lower quality of bourbon is the height of first world concern. But my first thought when Maker’s made the initial announcement was–in what universe do you diminish quality in response to increasing demand? Doesn’t limited quantity drive up value? Wouldn’t the smarter thing be to advertise a shortage, get people whipped up into a frenzied thirst, and then jack up the price? I mean, that’s the American way…

It just does not make sense to me that you might take an age-old recipe for success, and dilute it just to make more. But right there, in a nutshell (or in a shot glass, as it were) is what’s wrong with consumer-driven culture. Far too often, we settle for cheap in the interest of more. That right there is why there’s an Applebee’s on every corner, even in the desert.

My Lenten discipline this year is not so much a ‘giving up’ of things as it is a purge of the clutter in my life. And not just physical, tangible objects–but the thousand little things that waste my time and money, 5 minutes or 5 dollars at a time. I’ll write more about this process next week, but even in the early stages, I’m mindful of how often ‘cheap and plenty’ robs me of true abundance. To that end, the good folks at Maker’s have been given a gift this week. Their customers sent them a clear message that ‘less is more…’ That we’d rather sip a little bit of a really good thing, than chug a gallon of the bathwater. What blessed permission for a major company to simply be, and enjoy the success of their superior product. It is not just a lesson in marketing…it is a daggone Easter sermon.

Bottoms up, y’all. Hey, I’m giving up clutter and time-killers for Lent. I promised no such thing about beverages.


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  • Nicole

    I’ve had a similar conversation more than once recently about the problem with our demand of more for less. So often, we have no sense of–and certainly little appreciation for–the true cost of quality. I’ve recently resolved to reduce clutter, too, and have been making an increasing effort to seek out–and pay for–the real, the handmade, and the undiluted wherever possible. Thank you for the timely reminder.

  • Carl Keith Greene

    I do love Maker’s Mark, but right now I can’t afford it. Oh well, pray that I get a new job after six months without one.

  • revdave

    OMG! Makers is Jim Beam’s signature bourbon. Ya don’t mess with the signature! That’s like making the Jaguar XKE a four-banger, taking Michael Jordan out of Chicago’s lineup, handing Gordon Ramsey a package of Rice-A-Roni, putting a Hager store in Saville Row, exchanging Air Force One for a Piper Cub, putting training wheels on a Harley Electra-Glide, or making ripple the national drink of France.
    BTW, I once went into an upscale bar and ordered a single-malt Scotch. The waitress said, “What’s that?” true story!

  • Steven

    I am not much of a drinker. I have said that no liquor store would stay open on my business.
    But I am a Canadian, and I assure you that we don’t drink bathwater. Now, I have no idea where Crown Royal lies in the quality ranking of Rye Whiskey. I never drink whiskey. In fact I wouldn’t know if they reduced the alcohol content, or upped it.
    I am sure that if you want good bourbon, Rye will not do. Likewise, if you want good Scotch, bourbon ain’t it.
    I do appreciate the point about ‘cheap and plenty’.
    Keep up the blogging.