Review of the Yikvei Zion Armon Reserve 2007 and the flip-flop over Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whisky.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week March 6, 2013
Israel’s first “modern” winery was established over 150 years ago. Originally located in the Old City of Jerusalem near the Kotel, the Zion Winery – now in Mishor Adumim, the industrial estate near Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem – has grown to become one of the country’s largest wine producers.
In 1848 Rabbi Yitzhak Galin set up a winemaking business in Jerusalem in rented space along today’s Maaleh Chaldieh Street, near the Damascus Gate. The winery was originally named “Shor Brothers.” This is because Galin went into business with his father-in-law – who already owned a wine business and had the appropriate permits from the Turkish authorities to open a kosher winery. Rabbi Galin took his father-in-law’s last name – “Shor” – to simplify his use of the permit. Business was fairly good for the Shor “brothers.”
Due to British Mandate decree against “industry” in the Old City, the family run Shor Winery, as it was by then known, moved in 1925 to the Beit Yisroel section of the new city of Jerusalem, near Meah Shearim. This forced move proved most fortunate, however, as the Old City was subject to violent anti-Jewish Arab riots in the following few years (1929 and 1936).
In the 1940s, adhering to yet another British Mandate decree (against family-named businesses), the Shor Winery became the Zion Winery. Also in this period, financial success enabled greater expansion and the business was split between two Shor brothers: Avraham Shor stayed in Beit Yisroel to produce wine and grape juice, while his brother Moshe began a liquor and distilled spirits production business in Tel Azur, in the outskirts of Jerusalem, near Atarot. The Tel Azur venture later got back into wines, and then split as well into the Arza and HaCormim wineries.
In the years after independence, the Zion Winery had various struggles with both their Arab neighbors and the basic scarcity of resources, but continued to produce wine and maintain a loyal following. By 1986 Zion, along with the other Shor family-owned wineries, Arza and HaCormim, moved to their current facilities on HaHaruvim Street in Mishor Adumim east of Jerusalem. All three kosher wineries remain Shor family-owned and -operated to this day.
Zion Winery’s portfolio expanded in 2007 to include nonsacramental, dry wines that are released under the Erez, Tidhar and its flagship Armon labels. A soft, full-bodied blend of 62 percent cabernet sauvignon, 31 percent merlot and 7 percent petite sirah, their Yikvei Zion Armon Reserve 2007 is an ideal choice for the upcoming holidays. Red berry and currant aromas lead into nicely balanced blackberry, plum and mocha flavors with a touch of cedar and spice throughout a lingering finish.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d comment on the latest meshugas from the folks that produce Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (Maker’s always insists on this spelling instead of the usual “whiskey” for American whiskey). On Friday, Feb. 8, rumors began to spread across the blogosphere that Maker’s Mark was going to water down its whisky. The next day, an official email confirmed the rumors: Maker’s Mark would be lowering the alcohol concentration of its standard expression from 45 percent abv (alcohol-by-volume) to 42 percent abv (or from 90° proof to 84° proof). Suffice it to say, fans did not take this news well. The explanation wasn’t all that compelling either.
See, after Maker’s Mark finishes aging its whiskey it comes out of the barrel at about 60 percent abv. They then add water to bring it down to the “bottling proof” that they feel is ideal for consumers to enjoy their product. So Maker’s was simply planning to add to each bottle a little more water and a little less whiskey.
The reason for the change was simply to get more bottles from each barrel, because “demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it.” As their official email put it: “We never imagined that the entire bourbon category would explode as it has over the past few years, nor that demand for Maker’s Mark would grow even faster.” This watering down “will enable us to maintain the same taste profile and increase our limited supply so there is enough Maker’s Mark to go around, while we continue to expand the distillery and increase our production capacity.”
The email insisted that lowering the proof wouldn’t change the taste, and nothing else was going to change. Or: “In other words, we’ve made sure we didn’t screw up your whisky.”
Even granting them the fiction that watering down the strength of the whisky won’t “screw up” the taste of the whisky, their announcement itself was damage enough and clearly cheapened the product.
With no concomitant plans to lower the price, consumers were expected to be happy about getting a little less of what they paid for. The only clear benefit was to Maker’s Mark and its parent company, Beam Inc. (of Jim Beam fame). (We won’t even get into the bogus “expansion” plans that Beam Inc. has been talking about but done virtually nothing to advance since 2005. Sure, they did expand visitor capacity in 2008 to capitalize on tourism, and they had previously raised the dam on the distillery’s water source to enable greater supply for production whenever they finally get around to expanding, but construction for additional distillery capacity has yet to even be initiated.)
As the days passed, major newspapers around the country began to decry the decision almost as vehemently as fans. More than a few folks began saying they would simply stop buying Maker’s altogether. One week later, Beam Inc. suddenly sounded like the late Gilda Radner’s old SNL character Emily Litella as it issued a formal: “Never mind.”
As they put it: “While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision… . You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down. … So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90° proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.”
Was this an honest, straightforward plan and genuine reversal, or more of marketing subterfuge? Hard to say. They did, in fact produce the 42 percent abv bottles during that week and some of these entered the distribution chain and have already become collectors’ items.
Frankly, we’re happy to forgive and forget – even the horrible New Coke led to the relaunch of what became rebranded as “Classic Coke” – and, after all, Maker’s Mark is mighty tasty hooch.
Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (45 percent abv; $26): This is a mild, sweet and very smooth bourbon with notes of vanilla, caramel, wheat grain, allspice, cedar wood and pipe tobacco followed by a nice, rounded, if slightly quick, clean and cool finish. It is incredibly drinkable, and remains our preferred bourbon for cocktails.
Maker’s Mark #46 (47 percent abv; $37): This intriguing and enjoyable whisky is the regular Maker’s Mark with a few additional months of maturation in barrels that contain heavily seared French oak staves, making for a most inviting variation. This whisky is smoother and a little less sweet, offering a dollop more heat in the mouth, with a little less vanilla and a bit more earthy allspice, caramel and a touch of something racy.
Both expressions of Maker’s Mark are delicious, and dangerously easy to drink (though obviously neither is kosher for Passover, so drink up). L’Chaim!