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When iconic American bourbon goes global

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The news earlier this month that Beam Inc., the Illinois-based company behind the American brands Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Knob Creek, would be acquired by the Japanese company Suntory Holdings, was met with some skepticism and hand-wringing. Bourbon is, after all, the iconic American liquor, and, as is often the case when it comes to matters of spirit and national identity, deviations from tradition can be cause for alarm. By most accounts, the sale to the Japanese conglomerate, best known as makers of whiskey in their country (and an appearance in the film “Lost in Translation”) will not be a blow to some idealized notion of Americana.

There’s always an argument to be made against the increased globalization of any type of goods. The omnivorous buying power of the world’s largest liquor conglomerates, like the British company Diageo and the French spirits titan Pernod Ricard, is an ongoing industry concern. But the Beam sale, a reported $16 billion including debt, is not the harbinger of doom, but rather the natural state of things. “We operate in a global economy, and the fact is, international ownership is relatively common among successful Kentucky distilleries and Bourbon brands,” says Clarkson Hine, a Beam spokesman.

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Wild Turkey, for example, is owned by the Italian company, Gruppo Campari, Bulleit by Diageo, Four Roses by the Japanese Kirin. Beam itself already owned the legendary Scotch whiskey, Laphroaig. In other words, the people writing, and cashing the checks, often don’t have an effect on the way a spirit is produced, or, at least, how we perceive how it is produced.

Beam maintains that it will be business as usual at its US-based distilleries. “Our brands will continue to be made the exact same way, with all the heritage and authenticity they’ve always had,” says Hine. In order to be called bourbon, it must be distilled in the United States and made from at least 51 percent corn, among other regulations. Skeptics will recall the furor over the Maker’s Mark announcement last year that it would water down its bourbon due to high demand and low supply; after outrage from consumers, it retracted that policy.

“Changing production methods or styles in whiskey is not something you do right away,” says David Sweet of Whisky Magazine and the annual nationwide Whisky Live events.

Instead, Sweet suggests, the most interesting developments will be how, and if, flavored whiskies, a fast-growing category for Beam, translate to the Japanese market, how distribution of Suntory products is funneled through Beam’s well-established US channels, and vice-versa. “There’s a massive market for bourbon in Japan. It’s almost bottomless,” Sweet says. “Japanese whiskey is just getting its foothold here in the States, although it’s recognized globally as a very premium product.”

Only time will tell if the acquisition makes Suntory’s spirits more visible in American bars. “It’s a massive leg up for Suntory here in the US,” he says, but don’t expect to see the brand everywhere just yet.

As in all things distilling, the most important ingredient is time.

Luke O’Neil can be reached at lukeoneil47@gmail.com.
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