Straight off a flight from Tokyo to Lexington, Suntory Holdings president and CEO Takeshi Niinami said Monday he was excited to visit Kentucky, where Beam expects to spend more than $1 billion over the next five years.
Most of the investment will come in the form of the daily business of distilling, aging and bottling Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark bourbons. Japan is Jim Beam’s fastest growing market and is poised to become the largest export market for Jim Beam in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Niinami said.
Already the biggest-selling bourbon in the world, Beam exports to Japan are expected to reach 550,000 cases this year, up from about 30,000 in sales before the acquisition, Niinami said. Sales are expected to hit 1 million cases by 2020, making Japan the first million-case market outside the U.S., he said.
But the global expansion has come with growing pains: just before the CEO’s arrival, union workers at two Beam plants voted to go on strike after twice rejecting a new contract.
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Niinami did not address the strike in his speech in Lexington to the Japan/America Society of Kentucky.
Company spokeswoman Emily York said that Beam officials met with representatives of striking workers late Sunday to clarify points of contention and will be joined by a federal mediator for further negotiations.
“We remain committed to doing what we can to promote a timely resolution that is in the interest of our union employees and our business,” York said in a statement.
Niinami planned to stop by a Frankfort bottling plant, which is represented by a different union, before a reception at the Governor’s Mansion with Gov. Matt Bevin Monday, and then fly to Chicago for a Beam board meeting.
The company, which bought Jim Beam two and a half years ago for $16 billion, anticipates Beam also will continue to invest in enhanced production capabilities in Kentucky, such as the recent $67 million expansion at Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto that included adding a third still, Niinami said.
“We are committed for the long term here,” Niinami said. “To create products with unique value that bring joy to consumers by further blending the strengths of Beam and Suntory.”
Niinami congratulated Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe on the naming of Booker’s Rye as the World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray’s “Whisky Bible for 2017.” The rye was made from some of the whiskey put in the barrel by Noe’s father, Booker.
“I know that it must be very special to you to receive this honor for a brand that your father started and you have enhanced,” Niinami said. “It is certainly a reflection of the devotion your family has given to bourbon.”