Thursday, May 16, 2024

What’s In a Name? (Beam’s version)


Fred, Freddie, and Booker Noe, at the Jim
Beam Distillery, Bullitt County, Kentucky.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

That’s my message to members of the Beam family who were saddened by the May first corporate name change, from Beam Suntory to Suntory Global Spirits. As Juliet says, that name is no part of thee. The Beam name and all it represents can never be erased.

When Jacob Beam came to Kentucky from Maryland at the end of the 18th century, he had already undergone a name change himself, from Johannes Jacobus Boehm to Jacob Beam. 

He had at least one son, David, who joined and followed him in the whiskey business. The third generation produced three successful whiskey makers. By the fourth generation, Beam family members were everywhere in bourbon country. 

That takes us to the end of the 19th century, when brothers Jim and Park Beam, along with their brother-in-law, Albert Hart, took over the operation begun by their great-grandfather. The distillery was called Beam & Hart. Their uncles and cousins were making whiskey too, at other companies.

The Beam & Hart Distillery was on Nazareth Road (now Old Nazareth Road), about three miles north of Bardstown, near the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth religious community. Beam & Hart’s main bourbon was called Old Tub. They operated at Nazareth until Prohibition (1920).

During Prohibition, the brothers bought the property where the Jim Beam Clermont distillery is now, about 20 miles northwest of the Nazareth place in Bullitt County. It had been a distillery, but the property also included a gravel quarry, a going business at the time. 

After Prohibition, with their sons, the Beam brothers rebuilt and reopened the distillery at Clermont. There were some problems with ownership of the Old Tub brand name, so Jim Beam became the name of the brand and company. 

In the 1940s, the family sold the company to a trio of Chicago investors. The new owners kept the name, and the family. Jim’s son, Jere (pronounced “Jerry,” short for Jerimiah), continued to run the business side while Park’s sons, Earl and “Shucks,” made the whiskey. Now called Jim Beam Brands, the company was based in Chicago. 

Jim Beam Bourbon’s popularity soared in the 1960s. Harry Blum, by then sole owner, sold the company to American Tobacco. Today, Blum’s grandson runs a cannabis company.

At the distillery in Kentucky, on the whiskey-making side of the business, Park Beam’s grandsons, Baker and David, were joined by their cousin, Booker Noe, son of Jim Beam’s daughter, Margaret. The company bought a second distillery, in Nelson County, and had Booker run it. It now bears his name. There were other family members here and there in the company.

Meanwhile, the new owner, American Tobacco, morphed into a diversified conglomerate called Fortune, which used its Jim Beam Brands subsidiary to acquire additional assets in the beverage alcohol space. They successfully converted Jim Beam Brands from a bourbon company into a diversified beverage alcohol company with a broad portfolio. In 2006, following a major acquisition that brought Maker’s Mark into the fold, Fortune changed the subsidiary’s name to Beam Global Spirits and Wine.

By that time, diversified conglomerates like Fortune Brands were out of favor with investors. Fortune began to sell off pieces of itself. In December 2010, it was split into three chunks, representing its three remaining businesses: distilled spirits, home and security, and golf products. 

Earlier in 2010, Pershing Square Capital Management, Bill Ackman’s hedge fund, became Fortune’s majority shareholder. Ackman pushed hard and publicly for a break-up. In 2011, Fortune became a "pure play" beverage alcohol company and changed its corporate name to Beam, Inc.

Company management hoped that would be good enough, but Ackman wasn’t finished. He kept pushing for more divestment. Almost exactly 10 years ago, Ackman got his way. Beam Inc. was sold to Suntory Holdings Limited, a privately held company based in Japan. Its distilled spirits division became Beam Suntory. In 2022, Beam Suntory moved its headquarters to Suntory’s offices in New York. Earlier this month, “Beam” was deleted from the name. That division is now called Suntory Global Spirits.

Meanwhile, and apropos Juliet’s admonition, nothing has changed in Kentucky, where all the company’s bourbon and rye whiskeys are made. Beam descendants still have a large say in how those whiskeys are made. The revived American whiskey business is full of Beams, whether they have the surname or not. For all of them, it is better to not share their name with a huge, international company they do not control and have not controlled for 80 years. Beam for the Beams.

Romeo, after all, has the final word on the subject: “Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized.”

Friday, May 10, 2024

Have I Learned Anything About Life? Maybe

Grant Wood "American Gothic" (detail)
In 2003, two of my friends were getting married. They'd both been around the block a few times and requested, in lieu of gifts, that we offer them our advice "on conflict resolution and the making of a successful partnership." It seems weird to me now, but that's how I remember it. 

Anyway, this is what I wrote. I think I printed it on a scroll or something. It's not bad advice, really.

And, yes, they're still married. 

Considering my track record, my first thought was to suggest that you study my recommendations and then do exactly the opposite.

But maybe I have learned a few things.

Trust. There is nothing more important. If I am certain of anything it is that. To be with a person you can trust completely, that is the only reason to even be in a relationship. To have such people in your life in any capacity is a treasure.

Figuring out if you can trust another person is not nearly as important as being trustworthy yourself.

The best way to resolve conflicts is also the easiest: give in. State your position, explain why you feel the way you do, then let it go. Compromise quickly and generously, or simply fold altogether, then forget about it.

That doesn't mean be wishy-washy. You can have an opinion. You can even argue, just don't care about winning. Yes, someone is keeping score, but not the way you think.

No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to be too nice. Kindness does not come naturally or easily to anyone. It is counter-intuitive, you have to work at it. There is no chance that you will overdo it.

Gentleness, patience; also good.

Understanding, on the other hand, is overrated. Acceptance is more satisfying and conducive to happiness than understanding.

Shut up and listen. Of course you have to talk at some point, but the risk that you will listen too much or talk too little is very small.

Other very small risks: that you will laugh too much, smile too much, hug too much, have too much fun, see too much beauty or hear too much music. You can, however, eat too much cake.

Events you do not control will always turn out to be more interesting than events you do control. Also more entertaining, educational and, yes, more frightening, but still better.

Despite all indications to the contrary, your partner will not be improved if he or she becomes more like you. Do not try to understand why this is so. Instead, relax and enjoy the ride.

In fact, that’s probably the single best advice I can give: relax and enjoy the ride. That doesn't mean be passive. You should be engaged and involved, but also utterly open to life’s surprises. Another very small risk: that you will be too open to new experiences.

What about love? That’s the prerequisite. You won’t get very far with any of this other stuff without love. Love is the presence of all things good and the absence of all things bad. Trust, kindness, acceptance, listening – those are behaviors that require your attention. Love takes care of itself.

Thank you (names deleted for privacy) for prompting me to think about these matters. I don’t mean to suggest that I successfully follow all of my own advice all of the time, but right or wrong these are the lessons life has taught me so far.

Be nice. Have fun. Prepare to be surprised.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Prohibition: How It Happened, How It Ended, Why It Still Sucks


An anti-prohibition parade in Newark, New Jersey in 1932.
Apologists for the Prohibition disaster dubbed it the "noble experiment." There was nothing noble about it. A century ago, the American people were sold a bill of goods. They were promised an end to crime, poverty, depravity, abuse, neglect, and just about any other evil you can think of. All they had to do was ban beverage alcohol.

They fell for it. 

No one, apparently, realized that meant they themselves would have to stop drinking. Most Americans either opposed Prohibition or assumed it applied to someone else, not them. 

Nothing noble about it.

Like a hangover blooming on the morning after, American voters regretted Prohibition almost immediately. But they had changed the damn Constitution! This fuck-up wouldn't be easy to fix.

The previous edition of The Bourbon Country Reader went out in January, so a new one is a bit overdue. Sorry about that. I hope it's worth the wait. Prohibition is our subject this time. Sure, you know about Prohibition, you watched that interminable Ken Burns thing on PBS. But this is the story as you've never seen it, about the peculiar way it ended, and the burdens we still carry because of it.

It's a two-parter but, happily, you won't have to wait too long for part two. Part one should be out in the next few days and part two will follow a few weeks after that.

Also, in what I am calling the April issue, you'll read about A. Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey. Finally, 37 years after it acquired the brand, Suntory Global Spirits is doing something interesting with it, returning it to its roots as a 19th century "Pure Rye."

Liquor companies are forbidden to make purity claims, so Overholt won't use the term, but The Reader can and will.

Who is Suntory Global Spirits? That's the new name of the company that was called Beam Suntory until, well, today.

Proudly anachronistic, The Bourbon Country Reader remains paper-only, delivered First Class by the United States Postal Service, which is not allowed to deliver bourbon but can handle this.

A six-issue, approximately one-year subscription is just $25 for mailing addresses in the USA, $32 for everybody else. Those links take you directly to PayPal. 

If you are unfamiliar with The Bourbon Country Reader, click here for a sample issue

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Since its inception, I have made back issues of The Reader available. I still do, but henceforth that service will be limited to what's currently in inventory. No new ones will be printed and bound. Some may be available in loose form. If you're interested in back issues, check out "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.) Place an order and I'll let you know what's available.