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Suntory and Jim Beam: Lessons from Kirin and Four Roses

By Chris Brantley – Jan 16, 2014 at 7:58AM

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What can one Japanese company learn from another about buying and selling American bourbon?

Before Suntory and Jim Beam (BEAM.DL), there was Kirin and Four Roses.

William Faulkner said he drank Four Roses bourbon because it was "affordable and easy to find." That's until Seagram's took the best-selling American bourbon off U.S. shelves for 40 years.

Here's the good news. Kirin bought Faulkner's go-to bourbon, and according to Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge, things continued as they always had, even with the new owner. Kirin did not mess with the bourbon, the recipe, the making of the sour mash.

Leaving the bourbon-making to the Bluegrass State

But Kirin did put it back on U.S. shelves. Thankfully, since case sales grew 42% in 2011 and 58 % in 2012.  In 2013, Whiskey Advocate, America's leading whiskey magazine, picked Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition 125th Anniversary Small Batch Bourbon as the "American Whiskey of the Year."

But the question remains, what will Suntory do with Beam? Suntory announced its planned takeover of the American whiskey icon this past weekend. If the deal goes through, let's hope it leaves the Kentuckians to distill Beam at the Stillhouse, with Central Kentucky water and the family's secret jug yeast that dates back to the end of prohibition. This bourbon-making process is one of the reasons Beam is the world's best-selling bourbon.

The deal will make Suntory the third largest spirits company behind Diageo (DEO 0.60%) of Britain and Pernod Ricard of France. Its portfolio of products, including more scotch-like Japanese whiskies, as well as Bowmore Scotch, complement but do not compete with Beam's portfolio of Jim Beam and Makers Mark bourbons, Sauza tequila, and Courvoisier cognac.

Spanning the globe 

So what's next? What does this $13.6 billion purchase -- $16 billion if you include Beam's debt -- mean for Jim Beam? If Suntory is smart – which I think it is – it'll leave the bourbon making to Beam and focus on growing the brand in Japan and beyond.

Letting Beam grow the Suntory brands in the U.S and other important emerging markets, including India, Russia, and Brazil. The Japanese market is contracting due to a shrinking population. Japan had a record population decline of 244,000 in 2013, according to Health Ministry data released Jan. 1. To offset this, Suntory has already expanded energetically in other non-Japanese markets, including Europe.

Now Suntory sets its sights on the U.S. markets, and Beam will facilitate the transition. Both companies will benefit from the other's presence in other markets around the globe. Suntory and Beam already have a relationship. Suntory distributes Beam products in Japan and Beam distributes Suntory products in Singapore and other Asian markets. So the transition should be fairly seamless. 

Growth potential 

If all goes according to plan, the companies' combined sales will be 4.3 billion when the deal closes. And that helps both companies. You should expect U.S. sales volume to keep growing. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey has grown 13.2% over the past five years ending in 2012, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The really good stuff, the so-called super-premium brands, grew even more -- almost 80% during the same period.

Faulkner also said, "civilization begins with distillation." And ultimately, that's what this deal is about: Suntory bringing more of Kentucky's distilled spirits to Japan and the world, while Beam brings more Japanese distilled spirits to the U.S and other Beam strongholds.

Fool contributor Chris Brantley has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Beam and Diageo plc (ADR). 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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