Shakeup in the Bourbon World: Suntory purchases BEAM Inc

As many bourbon fans know, the craze around it’s production and consumption is not limited to the United States, or even North America.  Other markets, including Europe and Asia, have been clamoring for the fine American beverage for some years now, despite the serious limitations in it’s availability there.  It certainly comes as no surprise that an Asian company would make a power move by purchasing an American producer.  The surprise is more which one will have global headquarters on the move.

BEAM, Inc, the company responsible for some of the most iconic American bourbons like Makers Mark, Knob Creek and, of course, the many faces of Jim Beam itself, will be purchased by Suntory Holdings, Inc.  Suntory is a privately owned Japanese company, and they are purchasing BEAM, it’s assets and it’s debt, in entirety, and are adding the many products – which also include Canadian Club whisky, Sauza tequilla and Courvoisier cognac, among others.

What does this mean for the bourbons?  It is not yet known what impact, if any, this will have on the products themselves.  Suntory has been in the whisky game for a long time (they already owned whiskies Yamazaki – which they started in 1923 as Japan’s first whiskey producer, Hakushu, Hibiki and Midori liqueur).  It would be expected that, given their closeness with the under-served Asian market, the import and distribution to Asia of a much higher quantity could be on the horizon.

That could mean shorter supply here at home, or higher prices, but only time will tell.  It also could lead to the revisiting of a lower proof version.  When Makers Mark announced their desire to water down the bourbon slightly last year to meet increased demand, a public relations firestorm ensued.  Although they relented days later (leading some to wonder if it was a publicity stunt), public misconceptions still loom.  Last year, I heard several liquor purchasers comment on their lack of interest in Makers now that it was “watered down,” and my attempts to explain to them that it was only a thought, and they hadn’t actually changed it were met with disbelief.

Only time will tell.  For right now, the reporting is that the American management will stay in place.

The truth is most beverage distilleries are owned by large, global corporations and we are rarely any the wiser.  I won’t go into the geo-political aspects but I would remind readers this: if the ‘buy local’ movement is something important to you, there are a fantastic wealth of homegrown bourbons of excellent quality available out there, including most of the big names.  In the mean time…

It’s Suntory Time!

*thank you to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, NPR and The Bourbon Review for details