As Fred Noe leaned over the grill and splashed some of his best bourbon on the pork chops simmering on the grill, flames leapt up at him. He didn’t flinch.
It was a good day for the master distiller of Jim Beam. He had rolled off the 13th million barrel of the world’s highest selling bourbon.
“I guess, in this case, 13 is a lucky number,” Noe beamed.
A week later, the company, founded and run by seven generations of Noe’s family, become a part of Japan’s Suntory Whisky, bought out for $16 billion.
Beam Suntory is the world’s third largest distiller behind Diageo and Pernod Ricard, with $4.6 billion combined sales in 2013.
The American liquor industry was horrified: bourbon was, after all, America’s “native spirit”.
But Noe is not worried. “The market is growing and the deal is a good thing,” he said, adding he was looking forward to working with the new team.
But at nearby Maker’s Mark, another bourbon picked up by Suntory, there were questions about the deal’s impact.
Smaller bourbons such as Maker’s Mark are obsessively protective of their processes. Many of the critical stages are manually handled, which they fear will find little or no appreciation in a large corporation.
But experts feel these fears were largely unfounded.
Dickel Whisky, for instance, remains handmade with every eccentricity of a small outfit —despite being owned by Diageo.
Said Michael Keys, North American president of Brown-Forman, which own Jack Daniel’s: “I don’t think it’s going to impact us at all.”
But, he added, much would depend on how hands-on Suntory is in running its acquisitions.
(The writer was hosted by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States)