Friday, August 22, 2014
It's Time for Jim Beam to Drop the Number One Bourbon Claim
I like the Beam Suntory company very much. I like the people and most of their products.They are an outstanding operation. They do things the right way and they are very successful. They are truthful and reasonably open. They have been a leader and innovator and respectful participant in the bourbon business, and you know how much I love bourbon.
It is because I have so much respect and affection for them that I am making this suggestion.
Please stop claiming that Jim Beam is the world's #1 bourbon. It's not. You are bragging about a technicality. It's embarrassing.
As most readers can guess, I'm saying this because Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey is bourbon in all but name. It is made like bourbon and tastes like bourbon. Even their acclaimed charcoal mellowing really just jump-starts the barrel aging process. It is a point of difference but not a very big one, objectively. It has more to do with marketing than with the product itself.
Jack Daniel's is the world #1 bourbon and trending toward becoming the world's #1 whiskey, spilling Johnnie Walker from that throne.
Although they were fairly close in sales for many years, Jack Daniel's has pulled away from Jim Beam decisively. Daniel's sells about 60 percent more whiskey than Beam. They're not even close. Beam is doing fine. It has grown and is growing, and is an equally dominant #2. Evan Williams is third.
As people around the world discover American whiskey they will drink Jack and Jim and find them very similar. They will ask, "what's the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?" We will sound silly when we try to explain. The least silly explanation is the truest one. It's a marketing thing. Tennessee whiskey is bourbon that's made in Tennessee. They don't call it bourbon because bourbon is so closely associated with Kentucky.
This matters because bourbon is competing for share-of-mouth against a wide variety of beverages, alcoholic and not, but it competes most directly against other whiskeys. Classifying whiskeys by their place of origin works because each country, for the most part, produces a different style of whiskey. Among whiskeys, bourbon is the most distinctive because most other nations make whiskey from malted barley in a style that inevitably resembles scotch. The other exception would be Canada, which takes elements from both the Scottish and American styles. Japanese whiskey has emerged as a distinctive style, although it is still very close to scotch. Irish whiskey still struggles to distinguish itself from scotch, which is not to say the Irish don't make fabulous whiskey.
I don't expect Jim Beam to suddenly start crowing "We're Number Two." Nor do I expect Jack Daniel's to claim its primacy, except perhaps to say it is the world's most popular American-made whiskey, which doesn't have the same zip. I just want Beam Suntory to think about it, and maybe look for something else to hang their hat on, realizing that the cat is out of the bag.