Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Piece of Bourbon History Is Leaving Chicago

This is the view Beam Suntory is giving up, of the Chicago River from the Merchandise Mart's rooftop deck.

Back in January, Beam Suntory announced it will move corporate headquarters from Chicago to New York sometime next year. At least 100 employees will relocate. The current office, in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, will remain Beam Suntory’s largest global office and home to its North American business unit. Parent company Suntory Holdings already has offices in the same Madison Avenue building where Beam Suntory is going.

But this isn't about that. That is just an excuse to look back on the history of Jim Beam in Chicago, where I live.

The Beam story begins, of course, with Jacob Beam's arrival in Kentucky more than 200 years ago. His descendant, James Beauregard Beam, brought the family's whiskey business into the 20th century only to see it snuffed out by Prohibition. After Repeal, Jim Beam, his brother, and their sons restarted the distillery but soon ran out of money, not because they were failing but because they were succeeding too well. It would take a lot of new capital to keep the company growing. The Beams didn't have it and neither did most of their neighbors in Kentucky's whiskey heartland. It was a common problem.

Perhaps in part because Chicago had been so wide-open during Prohibition, the midwestern metropolis seemed a natural place to concentrate legal whiskey distribution after Repeal. More importantly, investors could be found there. The Beams hooked up with three Chicago-based money men: Harry Homel, Oliver Jacobson, and Harry Blum. The heirs of Tom Moore found Oscar Getz and Lester Abelson, who started Barton. In both instances, the distilleries were in Kentucky but the businesses were run out of Chicago.

Harry Blum eventually bought out Jacobson and Homel, who reinvested their funds in Heaven Hill. The Homel family hung on there until about 2005.

Blum and his wife, Maribel, must have lived in my neighborhood because one of the buildings on the campus of Anshe Emet Synagogue, just down the block, is the Harry and Maribel Blum Community Hall. Two of the largest charitable foundations in Illinois are those of the Blums and of their daughter and son-in-law, the Kovlers, who also made their money from Jim Beam. 

The Jim Beam Distillery, of course, remained in Kentucky, in Bullitt County, about 30 miles south of Louisville. They eventually bought a second distillery a few miles away. Until the early 1990s, brothers Baker and David Beam minded the stills at the Bullitt County place, a 24-hour operation. Their cousin Booker Noe ran the plant in Nelson County. All of the manufacturing was done in Kentucky. All of the sales, marketing, finance, and corporate management was done in Chicago.

In 1967, Blum sold Beam to American Tobacco, which was using its cigarette profits to become a diversified conglomerate; soon renamed American Brands, then Fortune Brands. In addition to Jim Beam, the company would come to own Titlist, Moen, Master Lock and many other companies/brands. It was based in Connecticut, but Beam's headquarters remained in Chicago; downtown until 1988, then in a new office complex in Deerfield, a Chicago suburb. It had just merged with National Distillers and become a much larger company. 

Chicago is in Cook County. The next county north is Lake. The border between them is a major thoroughfare called, conveniently, Lake Cook Road. Beam's offices were on the north side of the street, hence in Lake County. I did a lot of business there between 1988 and 1994. One of their near neighbors was the Berto Center, where the Chicago Bulls had their offices and practice facility until 2014. 

Diversified conglomerates were all the rage in the 1960s but fell out of favor by the end of the century. Wall Street wanted 'pure plays.' Fortune eventually divested all of its other businesses and in 2011 became Beam Inc. That didn't last long. In 2014 it sold itself to Suntory. In 2016, Beam Suntory moved back downtown, to the historic Merchandise Mart building.

Although the top management echelon is decamping, what remains is significant. There is a lot of history there. Beam folks started to travel regularly between Kentucky and Chicago 80+ years ago. Chicago is slightly more convenient to Kentucky than New York, so that may help keep Chicago in the mix. It remains to be seen if there will be more Beam folks traveling from Muhammad Ali International to LaGuardia and Kennedy than O'Hare and Midway in the years to come. 

1 comment:

bnking1969 said...

Thanks, Chuck. Love the history lesson, as always.