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Yesterday, British booze giant Diageo (NYSE: DEO ) put the ice on its results for the fiscal year, while Tennessee-based Jack Daniel's owner Brown-Forman (NYSE: BF-A ) (NYSE: BF-B ) tapped its next fiscal year by announcing first-quarter results. The results weren't overly spirited, but they did demonstrate that the market for high-end spirits is relatively recession-proof and has plenty of long-term appeal.
Diageo announced respectable full-year sales growth of 8%, and though operating profit advanced only 3%, earnings per share improved 7% thanks to a continued stream of share buybacks. Management also announced plans to juice its dividend by 5%, marking a healthy decade of dividend increases.
The company houses an impressive array of steady-growth alcohol brands throughout the globe, with notable strength in Johnnie Walker scotch and Guinness beer in emerging markets such as Latin America and Africa. Diageo also boasted 5% sales growth in North America, despite undeniable economic woes. European top-line growth was more muted at 3%, and overall the company was able to push through pricing increases to offset higher raw materials costs, thanks to global inflationary trends.
Brown-Forman, on the other hand, announced an unexpected bottom-line shortfall, as first-quarter earnings fell 5% due to "dead or dying" agave plants, which form the basic raw material for its high-end Herradura and other tequila brands. Total sales still managed a 7% increase on continued strong growth in Jack Daniel's and Finlandia vodka, and earnings would have grown in the double digits had it not been for the agave incident.
Given the first-quarter hiccup, Brown-Forman had to temper its full-year forecast, but still expects to grow earnings and could boost them 7% if it hits the high end of its guidance. Diageo is calling for another year of high-single-digit operating profit growth. It's not what I would characterize as overly stellar profit expansion, but given the economic malaise currently sweeping the globe, these expansion levels look relatively appealing right now.
Additionally, alcoholic beverage exposure is quickly drying up for U.S-based investors. King of beers Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD ) will soon fall into Belgium-based Inbev's arms, and Miller left the states awhile back when it was snapped up by what is now known as SABMiller (OTC: SMBRY). That will leave Molson Coors (NYSE: TAP ) and Boston Beer (NYSE: SAM ) in beer land, with Diageo and Brown-Forman the key plays in the spirits biz. Global consumer trends continue to favor upscale liquor over beer -- another reason to consider looking into this space more closely.