Suntory Buys Beam — Think of it in Symbols

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January 13, 2014 by Bourbon Empire

Japanese drinks giant Suntory has purchased U.S. drinks giant Beam Global. Beam is perhaps the most recognizable name in bourbon, the spirit born on America’s frontier and a symbol of American culture as much as Coca-Cola or Levi’s Jeans. To some, the purchase probably seems like the U.S. has lost a little something, like when Belgian drinks giant InBev bought Budweiser a few years ago. When that happened, the press rippled for months asking what it meant that Budweiser–the drink of NASCAR and the Super Bowl–wasn’t owned by Americans.

Like Budweiser, the importance of the purchase is largely symbolic.

And par for the course. If there’s one thing America is also a symbol of, it’s how global economies have become knitted together under vast corporate umbrellas, both for good and bad. For decades now, conglomerates have traded portfolio’s like Beam’s as if they were baseball cards. Suntory’s purchase of Beam also means that it gets Courvoisier, the cognac famously drank by Napoleon, and Laphroig, the famously peaty scotch whisky. Beam purchased both of those a few years ago, capturing a little bit of French and Scottish culture when it did so. Now that all falls under somebody else’s portfolio.

For years now, much of American whiskey has been owned by foreign companies. Wild Turkey is owned by the Italians, Four Roses is owned by the Japanese (Kirin this time), Bulleit is controlled by the UK’s Diageo, which owns other American brands. Buffalo Trace makes whiskey for labels that are owned by foreigners. I could go on and on, but honestly, these arrangements constantly shift. American whiskey brands have been bought up by overseas corporations in the past, then sold back to American companies a few years later. As I said, it’s like trading baseball cards or marbles, and I won’t be surprised if, in a few years, Suntory sells off the Beam portion of its portfolio. Maybe to a UK company. Maybe to another Japanese company. Maybe back to an American company.

Good or bad? We’ll have to wait and see what the next (if any) steps are. From my experience, Japanese companies have worked wonders for foreign brands. Four Roses was completely pulled out of the gutter by Kirin. The things that Suntory did for Louis Royer’s cognac when it bought that brand are marvelous. The news is still just rolling out, but it looks like Beam will still operate as a wholly owned subsidiary…owned by somebody else, but still running itself. This is largely the arrangement Maker’s Mark had when Beam bought it in 2005 (remember, baseball cards). If that’s the case, I doubt we’ll see too many changes up front. Neither company was really overlapping with the other to begin with, so I doubt the Earth will stop spinning on its axis for anybody in the short term, and the manufacture of Beam is staying right where it is in the U.S.

Suntory basically just got a big, powerful liquor company to help balance out its big, powerful portfolio. That is basically what it is about.

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