Just as American whiskey achieves its greatest popularity and respect, one of our best-known brands is on the verge of no longer being American-owned. The Japanese whiskey company Suntory has agreed to pay $13.6 billion for Beam Inc., the company that produces Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and many other lines of bourbon and non-bourbon liquors.
Suntory is a privately held Japanese company, which was founded 115 years ago and opened Japan's first distillery in 1923. The company's chairman, Nobutada Saji, is one of the country's richest men, and the company owns restaurants, fitness clubs and golf ranges in addition to its liquor holdings.
Of course, many of us know Suntory best for its part in the movie Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray plays an American actor who travels to Japan to appear in a Suntory commercial. "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time" was one of the movie's best-known lines. The idea of American celebrities appearing in Suntory commercials in Japan wasn't pure fiction - there's a long history of the practice. Check out this 1974 Suntory commercial featuring Sammy Davis Jr.
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Beam is one of those brands that pegs its identity on its very American-ness, and has a customer base that very much buys into the mythology of bourbon as a great American beverage. So, despite a new Japanese ownership, pains likely will be taken to keep the brand's identity firmly locked in the very American story of Jim Beam's history.
Included in the deal are all of Beam's brands, which include Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, Booker's, Courvoisier, Skinnygirl, Sauza, Hornitos, Canadian Club and Old Overholt. Also included? Beam's more than $2 billion in debt.