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Crank up the flow of red wax: Maker's Mark is boosting its bourbon output


LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Crank up the flow of red wax: Maker's Mark is boosting its bourbon output.

The producers of the Kentucky whiskey are pouring about $67 million into an expansion that features a new still. The ramped up production comes a couple of years after Maker's caused a stir with its short-lived attempt to cut the amount of alcohol in each bottle to stretch its whiskey supplies.

Maker's — known for its square bottles sealed in red wax — fired up the new still this week at its distillery near the small town of Loretto, about 45 miles south of Louisville. Every drop of Maker's is produced at the distillery. The expansion includes more fermenters and storage warehouses as Maker's looks to boost yearly production to 2 million cases later this decade. The brand surpassed 1 million cases per year in 2011.

"We see this as the beginning of what will be a sustained period of growth for premium bourbon, and Maker's in particular, here in the U.S. and around the world," said Maker's Mark chief operating officer Rob Samuels, grandson of the brand's founders.

The Maker's and Jim Beam bourbon brands are owned by Suntory Holdings Ltd., a Japanese beverage company.

The expansion comes amid continued strong demand for the brand and bourbon overall.

Domestic volume for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey shot up 7.4 percent to 19.4 million cases last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

U.S. revenues for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey — lumped into one category by the industry — rose by 9.6 percent to $2.7 billion in 2014, while exports topped $1 billion for the second straight year, the trade group said.

The expansion at Maker's was overdue given its problem with tight supplies and will allow the brand to "make up for lost time," said Chuck Cowdery, an American whiskey writer and author of "Bourbon, Straight."

"They're basically adding capacity to get to what they could probably be selling today if they had the capacity," he said Friday.

Less supply was behind the ill-fated decision by Maker's in early 2013 to slightly alter its proof or alcohol volume. The announcement drew a torrent of protests from customers, and the brand's producers quickly scrapped the idea.

"We heard our customers loud and clear," Samuels said this week.

Supply-and-demand decisions can be tricky in the bourbon business. Producers have to make long-term projections for future demand, since whiskey ages for years in charred oak barrels.

The new still is a replica of the two other stills churning out whiskey at the Maker's distillery.

Despite the big production boost from the expansion, the need to closely monitor supply and demand won't subside.

"I don't know that we won't ever have more demand than supply," Samuels said. "I don't know that anybody could ever guarantee that."

Kentucky is home to 95 percent of the world's bourbon production.

Brands such as Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace have become staples in bars worldwide.

The state's bourbon sector is in the midst of a $1.3 billion investment boom that could grow, according to Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association. The expansion includes new and expanded distilleries, warehouses, bottling operations and tourism centers.

Brown-Forman Corp. is investing $35 million to boost production at its Woodford Reserve Distillery. The Kentucky-based company is building a new Old Forester Distillery in downtown Louisville, an approximately $45 million investment that will double capacity for its founding brand.

Global liquor giant Diageo is building a new distillery at Shelbyville for its Bulleit brand.

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