Wednesday 15 January 2014

Suntory buys Kilbeggan

That headline runs a little differently in the US. Suntory is buying Beam Inc, parent company of Kilbeggan and maker of Jim Beam bourbon. Suddenly it's the 1980s all over again, when Japanese companies snapped up American icons like the Rockefeller Center and Columbia Studios. Patriotic sentiment is running high.

We might empathise in Ireland. It is only a scant two years since Beam took over Cooley, the only independent Irish whiskey distillery. We had to be philosophical about it, recognising that Beam offered distribution muscle in the largest market for Irish whiskey. It's nice to make great whiskey but you have got to sell it to make more of it.

Beam did a few things well. They poured money into upgrading visitor facilities and restoring old kit at the historic Kilbeggan distillery. They changed the name of the company from Cooley Distillery to the Kilbeggan Distillery Company, thus aligning the flagship brand with a picturesque "home" the world is invited to visit (rather than the inaccessible and functionally plain Cooley distillery where most of the spirit is actually made).

They also stopped supplying liquid to private and retail labels which eliminated many cheap, immature whiskeys that weren't doing the category any favours (along with a few others that are genuinely missed). In the unintended consequences department, this catalysed plans for rival distilleries around Ireland, since the only way to get Irish whiskey wholesale now is to distil your own.

On the negative side, it turned out that Beam didn't give two hoots about preserving the excitement and diversity of Cooley's output. They very quickly shut down the experimental distilling programme that was trialling unusual mashbills and cask types (with luck, someone from Suntory will intervene before they empty these casks into a huge vat of Kilbeggan). They let go some of their best people, and closed the traditional cooperage.

The range was essentially boiled down to four brands (plus the recently acquired 2 Gingers) - Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, Greenore and Connemara - and far fewer expressions of those. No more wonderful single casks, interesting finishes, small batch variations.

Even those brands must be at risk. The 250th anniversary of the Watt family company that first made Tyrconnell passed without mention in 2012 (even though the date 1762 is printed on the Tyrconnell label). The new 12 year old single malt that is due to be launched for the Far East market is a Kilbeggan, rather than a Tyrconnell.

If you are an enthusiast, then, Cooley/Kilbeggan no longer delights and surprises.

Will it be different under Suntory? Are they even interested in Irish whiskey, or does it count as an accidental acquisition? In the press release, they have already welcomed Irish whiskey into their spirit portfolio. As John Teeling, founder of Cooley, reminded us today, Suntory was sniffing around his company before Beam jumped in.

My hope is that Beam oversight will be removed from Kilbeggan and new management will attempt to re-engage with whiskey drinkers. Suntory seems happy to do just that at its Scottish distilleries: Bowmore, Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan.

I also hope we get more access to Japanese whisky here (though it has been trickling in lately anyway) while the Japanese are learning to appreciate what we produce. Kampai!