The bombshell that Japanese-based beverage giant Suntory is acquiring Beam Brands and its extensive portfolio of bourbon labels came as a surprise to many, but maybe it shouldn’t have.
It turns out Japan is more of a whiskey-loving nation than the United States.
Bourbon may be America’s native spirit, but we as a nation prefer drinking vodka. And despite having a variety of its own native spirits, whiskey has become the drink of choice for many in Japan.
Business news site Quartz created an interesting graphic that shows alcoholic spirit preference by country that reflects some surprising consumption patterns.
Like us, Ireland also prefers vodka over whiskey, as does the United Kingdom (though as Quartz pointed out, Scotland data was not tallied separately).
Of curious note, data exists for Saudi Arabia where alcohol is ostensibly illegal (for the record, they are whiskey drinkers).
Granted, if state-by-state data existed, it’s a good bet Kentucky would buck this trend. However, there clearly remains work to be done in educating the rest of America as to the finer points of our beloved sour mash.
Bourbon (and close cousin Tennessee whiskey) is in the midst of a renaissance. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, bourbon production has increased by more than 120 percent since 1999, and there are currently more barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky than there are residents — somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 750-milliliter bottles per person.
Upwards of $300 million dollars has been spent during this same time period on capital expenditures at various distilleries around the state.
Yet despite these astronomical growth figures, a massive potential market still exists domestically, according to this data.
Even more noteworthy is the impact of marketing.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms legally defines vodka as “neutral spirits distilled from any material at or above 190 proof, reduced to not more than 110 proof and not less than 80 proof and, after such reduction in proof, so treated as to be without distinctive character, aroma, or taste.”
In a nutshell, vodka is distilled to the point of becoming ethanol and then diluted with water before being bottled and sold without any aging. Before bottling, many of the premium vodkas are also filtered, sometimes multiple times, to further reduce impurities.
At the risk of offending our vodka-drinking readers, what’s the difference between the $10 bottle of well vodka and the $50 bottle of super premium vodka? The water … apparently very expensive water.
Even the word vodka itself is a derivate of an old Slavic word for water, voda.
Of course water can impart some unique characteristics into vodka, just as Kentucky’s limestone water can impart unique characteristics into bourbon. However with bourbon, water is just one factor that creates the unique taste as opposed to the primary factor.
Nonetheless, vodka brands have done an outstanding job of marketing themselves. Though Absolut may have started the trend of premium vodka in the mid-‘80s, bar shelves and liquor stores are now littered with premium and super premium vodkas.
That, my friends, is the result of marketing.
This is not to totally dismiss clear liquor. Even bourbon distilleries are jumping onto the clear alcohol bandwagon and selling white dog now, which is un-aged white bourbon – or a more refined moonshine.
Granted it has a more distinctive taste than vodka but is far removed from straight bourbon (aged a minimum of two years) or bonded bourbon (aged a minimum of four years).
If marketing turned the United States into a nation of premium vodka drinkers, huge domestic potential still remains for bourbon with its tastier product and better back story.
Rather than fretting about who owns Beam, a better use of energy would be to figure out how to get the rest of America to learn what we already know:
Bourbon is best.