Why a Jack Daniel's and French Cognac Pairing Just Might Make Sense for Brown-Forman

Word of a potential Brown-Forman (NYSE: BF-B  ) (NYSE: BF-A  ) buyout of French cognac and spirits maker Remy Cointreau was met mostly with indifference for the Jack Daniel's distiller. Shares were trading a hair above what they were on April 4, when financial blog Betaville broke the news that investment banking advisors for the two companies have reportedly been having "tentative discussions" about a buyout.


Skepticism over such a deal is understandable. Brown-Forman's bread and butter is American whiskey -- Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve, Southern Comfort and Early Times. The website for Remy's Cointreau liqueur features a Cointreau cucumber-and-basil fizz on the homepage. Remy Martin is a popular cognac, and St. Remy is a line French brandies. That seems more up the alley of Diageo (NYSE: DEO  ) , whose portfolio of brands includes just about every style under the sun.

But there's more to consider about this rumored Brown-Forman buyout than French cognacs and sweet liqueurs, and it just may make sense for Brown-Forman's plans to bring American whiskeys to the rest of the world.

Selling American whiskey overseas
Brown-Forman generates about 40% of its sales from the U.S. The company says that's twice that of its biggest competitors, such as Diageo, which generated about 24% of its 2013 sales from North America.

That means the Louisville-based Brown-Forman has a much bigger runway outside the U.S. than its biggest competitors, Diageo and Beam, soon to be a part of Suntory of Japan. Brown-Forman recognizes this, of course, and has been putting pieces into place to capitalize. Last fall, Brown-Forman established its first European head office in Amsterdam. This year, plans call for the creation of a distribution company in France.

It also recognizes that American whiskey is enjoying a true renaissance, appealing not just to more American drinkers, but to drinkers around the globe. And it just so happens to have the most iconic American whiskey available in Jack Daniel's.


CFO Jane Morreau spoke on the subject during the last quarterly earnings call:

We believe that our low market share outside the United States remains a source of tremendous long-term opportunity as we further grow and develop [the Jack Daniel's] brand family. ... We believe we have a terrific portfolio of brands that are skewed towards an increasingly global category: American whiskey.

Smaller player, but with a bigger lure
Remy is valued at about $4 billion on the French market, or just a bit more than a fifth the size of Brown-Forman's $19 billion valuation, and its sales have been struggling lately. But Remy also has its own global distribution network, and it makes 73% of its sales outside North and South America. It has a particularly strong network in China, which now generates nearly half of Remy's cognac profits. 

For years, Remy was part of a larger distribution network that included then-Beam parent Fortune Brands. But in the late 2000s, the company sought to bring its distribution under its own control. By 2013, it controlled 87% of its own distribution, with Remy networks in Asia and Europe, as well as the U.S.

In the equivalent of an annual report in the U.S., Remy declared in 2013 that its distribution network has become "strong, highly responsive and very close to customers" over the four years since it took that job back under its own roof.

The Foolish bottom line
By buying Remy Cointreau, Brown-Forman would not only be acquiring its brandies and sweet liqueurs, it would be acquiring its distribution network, and it would be doing so at a time when it is looking to expand its sales in markets where Remy's network is already established.

Betaville noted that this deal is rumored to be in the early stages of discussion, and it may not actually get done. If it doesn't, Brown-Forman will forge ahead with global expansion. But the fact that the company has been discussing a potential Remy buyout is further proof of the distiller's commitment to expansion outside the U.S. while the time is right.

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John-Erik Koslosky

John-Erik Koslosky is a writer, journalism instructor, investor, and all-around Fool. He follows the media and social media industries, and writes about some of their publicly traded companies.

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