Diageo Fires Back in the Next Round of the Whiskey Wars

Diageo is lobbying to support efforts to loosen the Tennessee state law that defines the process that a liquor must go through to be labeled "Tennessee whiskey."

Mar 26, 2014 at 5:30PM

Brown-Forman (NYSE:BF-B), owner of the Jack Daniels brand of Tennessee whiskey, is hoping to maintain the recently imposed state government requirements for what beverages can be labeled "Tennessee whiskey." The rules are quite specific, including the requirements that the mash be comprised of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oaks barrels, filtered through maple charcoal, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. Given this support of the existing law, it should be a surprise to no one that this is the exact process that Jack Daniels has used for years to grow its brand to over 11 million cases in 2013.

Upon further consideration, lawmakers are starting to question whether these requirements are too restrictive.  In particular, there are questions regarding the requirement to use new barrels, which can cost around $600 per barrel as noted by state Representative Bill Sanderson; this added cost can restrict entrepreneurs from launching new brands of Tennessee whiskey.  

 A recent decision has been made by Tennessee House and Senate committees to postpone the review of the law until the summer, making changes to the current restrictions unlikely for another year. Meanwhile, Brown-Forman sees a different reason behind the upcoming the pressure to review the law this summer: lobbying from global spirits giant Diageo (NYSE:DEO)

A war or words
Brown-Forman has been vocal in its attempts to protect the law that gives Tennessee whiskey legal protection against new competitors. Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee is not shy about his opinion on the potential dilution of the law:

"It's really more to weaken a title on a label that we've worked very hard for... As a state, I don't think Tennessee should be bashful about being protective of Tennessee whiskey over, say, bourbon or scotch or any of the other products that we compete with."

Given the direct linkage that Brown-Forman has made to Diageo in this effort to weaken the meaning of "Tennessee whiskey," Diageo was of course compelled to respond. In a forceful press release, Diageo referred to Brown-Forman as "anti-competitive" and "protectionist" while emphasizing its support of a "return to flexibility, innovation and entrepreneurship." As a final shot at Brown-Forman, Diageo turned the logic that new barrels are required for premium whiskey against Brown-Forman by reminding the world that Brown-Forman's Early Times brand does in fact use previously used barrels.

Aside from monitoring the back and forth of this soap opera, there really aren't any valid reasons for this restrictive law other than the corporate interests of Brown-Forman and other distillers that plan to meet the state's current requirements and hope to keep competitors out. 

Competitive environment
Perhaps more importantly, the changes to this law aren't likely to have a profound impact on the current competitive environment. Amongst Tennessee whiskey distillers, Diageo's George Dickel brand is in a distant second place, with roughly one percent of the case volume of Jack Daniels.

So what is this war of words really all about? In reality, the real objective for Brown-Forman in the process of getting the law passed last year and defending it today is the hope to market a more-exclusive "Tennessee whiskey" label as a premium product. This has little to do with Jack Daniels vs. George Dickel, and everything to do with the positioning of Jack Daniels within a spectrum of brands in an industry that has been seeing strong growth at the higher end in recent years. 

The ability for Brown-Forman to market Jack Daniels as a premium product is an important aspect of the fight for market share with Beam's (NYSE:BEAM) Jim Beam bourbons. During the company's most recent earnings release, Brown-Forman credited its strong performance on the strength of the Jack Daniels brand, which grew sales 10% over the previous year; the company hopes to continue this success by emphasizing the premium nature of the Tennessee whiskey label.

While the fourth quarter was solid for Brown-Forman, the company is trying to solidify its competitive position due to the fact that it is competing with larger companies including Diageo and Pernod-Ricard. Following the recently approved acquisition of Beam by Suntory, the Jim Beam brand will also be controlled by a larger rival.

Solid investing opportunity
While the publicity battle over the definition of Tennessee whiskey has become the latest phase of the competition between spirit makers such as Diageo, Brown-Forman, and Beam, it is important to consider the strength of all three companies within a growing industry. Over the past five years, all three have significantly outpaced the bull market as shown below:

DEO Total Return Price Chart

Share prices remain reasonable even after this stellar performance. Diageo is trading at just 16 times next years earnings, while Brown-Forman is trading at a slightly more expensive 26 times forward earnings. While a price to earnings ratio of 26 is by no means a bubble, it is a significant premium compared to the larger Diageo. Plus, Diageo features a dividend yield of 2.2%, which is higher than Brown-Forman's 1.6%. Brown-Forman's yield may be lower, but it is important to give the company credit for its place on the exclusive list of dividend aristocrats, a short list of companies that have increased their dividend payout annually for at least 25 consecutive years.

Based on current valuation and overall brand portfolio, Diageo seems to be the logical choice for an investment today. However, both companies are likely contenders to beat the market going forward.

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Brian Shaw owns shares of Diageo (ADR). The Motley Fool recommends Beam and Diageo (ADR). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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