January 16, 2014
Jim Beam Is Now Japanese
There are a few things we still think of as being all-American, and bourbon is one of them. The place of their origin is a great marketing tool for the famous bourbon brands and they often rely on it heavily in advertising and packaging. The reality of globalization, though, means that things are not quite as old-timey as they might appear.
Jim Beam, one of America’s most famous bourbons, is now Japanese. Beam Inc, which includes many famous brands alongside Jim Beam whiskey, has been bought by the Japanese drinks giant Suntory. Like Beam Inc, Suntory is responsible for all kinds of drinks, soft and strong, but is most famous for whiskey, particularly Japan’s much loved Hakushu (often missing from its shelf in the stores!) and Yamazaki.
The deal is worth $16 billion, and Suntory will pay $13.6bn in cash while taking on Beam’s debts. Suntory will become the third largest producer of distilled drinks in the world. Its other famous brands include Teacher’s and Laphroaig Scotch whiskies, as well as Canadian Club whisky and Courvoisier cognac, all of which people would probably attribute strong associations with certain countries to. Suntory also recently acquired Lucozade and Ribena. They are looking to expand outside of their traditional Japanese market in the face of growing competition and a declining population.
According to the New Yorker, some Americans have been reacting with dismay. “I feel completely betrayed,” was a not untypical comment on Jim Beam’s Facebook wall. “I am officially a Jack Daniels drinker now,” was another comment. TMZ said that “Blue Collar Comedy” legend” Ron White is giving up Jim Beam in protest, along with Maker’s Mark, which is (or was) also owned by Beam Inc.
But how much does this stuff really matter? Part of it may be nationalism, which very often has an unpleasant element to it. But at the same time, food and drink products strongly connected to certain parts of the world appeal to all kinds of people, because the diversity of the planet is what makes it interesting to us, and food and drink is part of that diversity. People like to know that certain wines come from France or certain cheeses from the Netherlands, and most of those people will be from outside of those countries, so it isn’t nationalism, it is simply a desire to authentically experience a taste, literally, of different parts of the world.
So long as people’s feelings are not hostile or xenophobic, I don’t think it is wrong to want products to come from and be authentically evocative of a particular place. But I don’t think the Japanese takeover of Beam really detracts from the cosy, southern states appeal of Jim Beam. The flavor came from that part of the world, and will always be true to it. Suntory almost certainly have no intention of adapting the taste of Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark. What’s more, 95 percent of bourbon is still produced in the US. The Jim Beam branch of Suntory’s empire will continue to be run from the traditional headquarters in Chicago by existing US staff. All that has really changed is where the profits go.
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