With the coming together of two opposing spirits, the recent merger of two global drinks powerhouses: Suntory and Beam has resulted in a bumper year for the newly formed group. There was bound to be speculation as to whether the merger of Japanese giant Suntory (the home of Yamazaki, Hakushu Japanese single malts, premium Japanese blend Hibiki and Bowmore Scotch whisky) and Beam Global, a company with a hugely renowned North American whiskey portfolio, (including Maker's Mark, Jim Beam and Canadian Club, as well as Laphroaig single malt) would be a smooth ride.
Back in January 2014, Suntory Holdings Limited announced it had entered into an agreement with Beam Inc, which saw it acquire all the outstanding shares for Beam in a deal reportedly worth approximately $16 Billion. The acquisition created what Matt Shattock, CEO of Beam Inc described as "a dynamic portfolio across key categories, with particular strength in Bourbon, Scotch, Canadian, Irish and Japanese whisky, which is driving the fastest growth in Western spirits."
Nearly two years later, the dust has finally settled and the first rays of sunshine are beginning to shine through, with a whole slew of new products coming to market from the now combined whisk(e)y portfolios.
With a shift in foundations, there is inevitable chatter about whether the newly aligned brands - particularly in the Scotch sector can co-exist without effectively cannibalising one another. It's a question I recently posed to Gareth Brown, Senior Director for Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky at Beam Suntory UK and I'm keen to find out his thoughts on the market positioning for the flagship brands, such as Laphroaig and Bowmore, and how his team can continue to keep developing each brand's unique profile.
"A great example of how we have already begun to do this is evident in our Peated Malts of Distinction platform," he explains, "which brings together the four peated malts in our portfolio (Laphroaig, Ardmore, Bowmore & Connemara) to offer consumers the full peated malt experience with different varieties and levels of peated whiskies - and in turn, educate consumers about these differences. Only Beam Suntory," he continues, "could offer this kind of quality and diversity in a single package. Specifically with regard to Laphroaig and Bowmore, they are already jointly established, premium and distinctive brands, but they are also very different brands. In fact, the only thing Laphroaig and Bowmore really have in common is that are both from Islay."
I ask Gareth just why he feels they sit so well together and what gives them their distinctiveness, particularly now they are effectively under the same ownership.
"They behave very differently and in turn attract a different type of consumer. Laphroaig is the No.1 peated single whisky malt on the planet and continues to go from strength to strength at the extreme end of the flavour spectrum with its 'love it or hate it' approach," he explains, which has recently been highlighted by the brand's global marketing campaign, 'Opinions Welcome', where consumers recorded short videos of their 'extreme' tasting notes. "Bowmore, on the other hand," he continues "is a much more balanced, rounded and approachable whisky, producing some of the most expensive and collectable whiskies in the industry. As a result, Bowmore appeals to a broader range of more premium mainstream malt consumers, and that is very much the focus of our strategy for the brand."
Having newly defined ties into the Japanese side of the business has helped shape things on the innovation front and Bowmore looks set to lead the new company's forward thinking approach with its latest release: a Mizunara Cask Finish, bringing together aged Bowmore, then extra matured in Japanese Mizunara oak casks, especially brought to Islay for the project.
"Clearly bringing together the expertise of such brilliant distillers and blenders who both hold similar values in terms of quality, heritage and provenance is very exciting," explains Gareth. "The Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish represented our first major collaboration between Scottish and Japanese distillers, and the limited-edition release represents one of the first occasions in which Japanese distillers have spared their precious Mizunara casks for a whisky outside of Japan. We are very excited about this innovation and the response has been fantastic. As a leader in whisky, we see it as our responsibility to continue to push the boundaries and develop new and interesting combinations, so we certainly see more opportunities for further collaboration and innovation, but you'll have to watch this space for that."
Alongside the highly anticipated release of a new Bowmore Devil's Cask at the end of October, Beam Suntory plans to develop the respective portfolios of both Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch - especially in the Global Travel Retail (GTR) sector and has also placed a much greater profile on The Ardmore, the group's other peated single malt.
"The Ardmore has undergone a complete brand re-launch over the course of the last 12 months and we are very excited about its potential," points out Gareth. "With its new stand-out packaging as well as new range of four core expressions we are seeing it go from strength to strength very quickly."
Alongside this collective dipping of Scottish toes into the innovation pool comes something equally new and exciting from the Japanese side of the business. With the increasing demand for Japanese whisky internationally, especially within its blended portfolio, in July, Suntory took the decision to introduce Harmony, a new member of the Hibiki family, which, it is hoped will help broaden the growing appeal of the brand in key European and North American markets, as well as help with the high demands placed on its age statement releases - namely the 12 and 17 Years Old blends.
"The stage for Japanese whisky is changing and people are really beginning to understand its significance and complexity at a different level now," explains Keita Minari, Brand Manager for Suntory UK. "Although we're increasing volumes available across Europe, demand is still outstripping supply and we've seen a surge in popularity for Hibiki. Harmony has a slightly different formulation to that of the 12 Years Old and 17 Years Old, which brings in a proportion of Mizunara oak casks into the blend, to give it a quintessentially Japanese incense note."
The initial success of Harmony has been bolstered by the emerging trend of the Highball serve, (which really allows the whisky a chance to display its inherent complexity of smoke, spice and sweetness) and recently, Harmony was the whisky partner for the London Restaurant Festival's 'Japanese Journey', showcasing the capital's best Japanese cuisine, each restaurant offering a specially paired Harmony Highball. "In Japan, there's a big culture of pairing food with beer," explains Keita, "but the lighter notes of the Highball tend not to fill you up as quickly. In the UK, we're exploring this further, alongside the aperitif gin and tonic culture that is so popular here."
The release of Harmony follows on neatly from the Distiller's Reserve expressions from both Yamazaki and Hakushu - Suntory's most recent activity in the Japanese single malt sector. Both No Age Statement releases hit the shelves in July 2014 and were designed to form the entry levels to both distilleries, sitting alongside the 12 and 18 Years Old expressions.
With Irish whiskey becoming the fastest growing and most dynamic spirits sector, its no surprise that Beam Suntory has big plans for its impressive portfolio, lead by single malt Connemara.
"Connemara is enjoying steady double digit growth at present," explains John Cashman, Beam Suntory's Global Brand Ambassador for Irish Whiskey. "This reflects the general increased interest in the Irish category and Connemara's unique proposition therein. However with Beam Suntory, we also have a second advantage in that we have positioned Connemara alongside Laphroaig, Bowmore and The Ardmore as a core component of The Peated Malts of Distinction. This has seen many consumers who would otherwise never have considered an Irish whiskey to try Connemara due to its association with their trusted brands."
So does John see Irish whiskey developing along the same innovative pathways as Scotch whisky?
"Of course innovation is important but we don't want to 'innovate' just for the sake of it. The core brand still has a long way to go as there are far more whiskey drinkers who have not tried Connemara yet," he points out. "Having said that, innovation is part of our DNA. In the past we released a Connemara finished in barrels where the ends were fashioned out of bog oak (bog preserved oak wood that dates thousands of years) and we are experimenting with some limited edition finishes. Sherry has worked very well in the past as well as exploring the possibility of bringing back our Connemara Turf Mor (heavily peated ecpression), so watch this space.'
From the US perspective, Beam has one of the most successful North American whiskey portfolios, spanning Maker's Mark, Jim Beam, Canadian Club, Knob Creek and the boutique collection of Bookers, Basil Hayden's and Baker's Bourbons. Beam partnered with actress Mila Kunis in 2014, and this summer saw the company roll out one of the first major campaigns in the UK - the Jim Beam Bourbon Legends Crafthouse project- a pop up, multi floored event space held on the banks of the River Thames, complete with barrel warehouse, coopering demonstration and sour mash bakery. I ask Janice McIntosh, Marketing Controller for Maxxium UK, who distributes Beam Suntory brands in the UK, about the ethos behind Crafthouse:
"The key objective for the Bourbon Legends Crafthouse event was to educate, inspire and immerse key influencers into the world of Bourbon and the great quality of the brands in the Beam Suntory portfolio. The experiential event focused on the craftsmanship that goes into each of our Bourbon brands."
2016 will see the company focus more on education into Bourbon, along with new innovative releases from the Jim Beam and Maker's portfolio.
Designed as the entry point for this hugely successful blended Japanese whisky, Harmony is the brand's first major foray into a No Age Statement blend but any preconceptions should be put aside: Harmony is incredibly well balanced, with notes of fresh green apple, subtle spice, vanilla cream and a distinct incense / aromatic note. The perfect starting point for a Highball serve over ice with sparkling water.
Bowmore Mizunara Cask
One of this year's genuine innovations, various vintages of Bowmore from the 1990s have been finished for an additional three years in Mizunara casks, giving a unique development to an already complex whisky. Delicate aromas of floral smoke give way into a drier, more spiced cedarwood note. The palate develops richer, more complex notes of spice, citrus fruit and sweet vanilla, with a hint of mango and rosehip jelly.
Maker's Mark Cask Strength
Although not officially released in the UK, this high proof expression is aimed squarely at the growing legions of American whiskey connoisseurs and the strength, which apparently can vary between 108 - 114 proof dependent on which batch you get helps to deliver a far more intense cinnamon / pepper note, alongside the classic sweet wheated notes of vanilla, apricot, honeyed oak and soft caramel.
Laphroaig 32 Years Old
Celebrating its bicentenary this year was a huge landmark for the world's most popular peated single malt and they clearly celebrated in style by releasing this monster: 32 years in ex-Oloroso casks have beaten the smoke into an altogether darker, richer complexity, with fruit cake, soft brown sugar and cinnamon hitting first, before the spicy, but surprisingly salty peat flavours arrive. A monumental whisky indeed.
Auchentoshan Blood Oak
One of the new GTR range from this Lowlander, Blood Oak is an unusual twist on the classic softer, lighter buttery notes that Auchentoshan delivers, being driven in a more tannic, citrus and warming dried fruit direction by the influence of red wine casks. The GTR range also includes Noble Oak, a 24 Years Old release matured in both Bourbon and Oloroso casks.