Suntory Buys Jim Beam

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 13 2014 9:12 AM

Jim Beam Is Turning Japanese

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Heading for Asian shores

Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images

Huge news for whiskey fans as Suntory, Japan's largest drinks group, announced today a $16 billion acquisition of Beam Inc.

Suntory is probably still best known to American audiences as the brand Bill Murray's character was touting in Lost in Translation, but it's a huge distillery in Japan. Japanese liquor isn't widely available in the West, but over the past few years you've started to see bottles of two Suntory lines in American liquor stores—Yamazaki single malts and Hibiki blended whiskey. Japanese whiskey, if you've never had it, is broadly similar to scotch-style whiskeys but somewhat lower in alcohol content. I'd really recommend trying the Hibiki.

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But the point of the merger probably has more to do with Beam's portfolio of bourbons—Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Basil Hayden's, and the smaller-batch Booker's and Baker's.

Bourbon demand has been surging in Asia, which briefly led Beam Inc. to consider watering down Maker's Mark to increase supply. Suntory is in Asia and, I think, believes it has some competency advantages in terms of Asian marketing and distribution. What it doesn't have is bourbon brands or facilities in the United States of America. Beam's got those, so together they can perhaps form a bourbon-exporting juggernaut. Of course for American bourbon drinkers this is probably going to end up meaning higher prices if more of the stuff gets shipped to China.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.