Bill Samuels Jr. ‘Not Really Surprised’ by Maker’s Mark New Proof Outrage (Exclusive Interview)


February 11, 2013

When Maker’s Mark announced it’s lowering the proof from 90 to 84, brand loyalists started blaming Rob Samuels, saying he screwed up the brand and created New Coke. This was not Rob’s first big decision as the brand’s chief operating officer. You might recall the Cocktail Party during the American presidential elections, and a new visitors center at the distillery. Within two years, however, after taking over for his father, Bill Samuels Jr., Rob’s early legacy is tied to this proof lowering.

The latest wrinkle to this story came when Rob’s father sent an email to brand ambassadors supporting the proof lowering. Instead of regurgitating the letter, I called Bill to get his first non-prepared comments.

Bill Samuels Jr.'s private whiskey collection, including whiskey from the old T.W. Samuels Distillery. Samuels retired in 2011 .
Bill Samuels Jr.’s private whiskey collection, including whiskey from the old T.W. Samuels Distillery. Samuels retired in 2011 .

Are you surprised by the reaction from people?

Samuels: We thought enough of our customers to tell them. All the other companies that have taken a move similar, for whatever reason, have tried to slip it under the radar screen. We never considered that. Am I really surprised? No, I am not really surprised. … People are entitled to their opinions. This new proof would have never been released had I not been 100-percent convinced that it is indiscernible

People are saying it’s New Coke.

Samuels: It’s certainly not like Coke, because they deliberately tried to improve on what they were doing and all we’ve done is maintain it. On the other hand, if people didn’t have a really in-depth feeling for the brand, they wouldn’t be so responsive. …If somebody said to me, what has been your greatest accomplishment over the years, it’s been managing inventories, managing growth. That was my first job. How much whiskey to make and how much to allow out every year was my call for about 45 years. … We were short from time to time but never anything like what we’re experiencing right now.

As a father, you have no doubt seen the mean comments towards Rob. How does that make you feel as a father?

Samuels: Well, Rob is pretty tough or he wouldn’t be in that position. He can handle it. So I don’t take that real seriously. Like I said, everybody has their first amendment rights. … But, there’s been a lot of support, too, from ambassadors.