Who knows whether Shinjiro Torii, when he opened his Torii Shoten store in 1899 in Osaka, envisaged his family firm becoming the world’s third-largest drinks group? Or that, in pioneering whisky distilling in Japan and creating a style that was recognizably Japanese and not a scotch copy, he would excite the world’s palates; that the values he laid out would have lasted for over a century.
A few years ago I met with his grandson, Shingo Torii, Suntory’s vice-president and master blender. Then, among other things, we discussed the philosophy which, he felt, helped define Suntory. “It has been about creating and developing a positive tradition, and it is this tradition, or what you could even call ‘inheritance,’ which should be understood by everyone within the company. It is important that it is handed down.”
As other drinks firms increasingly seem attracted to short-term fixes, these embedded values have given a consistency to the firm’s long-term vision for whisky. Neither does “consistency” mean “conservative.” You don’t spend $16 billion buying a competitor if you are that. After all, one of Shinjiro Torii’s first principles was “Yatte Minahare!” [Go For It!]
Suntory has always been based around innovation. This is the firm that transformed the stagnant domestic Japanese whisky through the HiBall revolution, while its research into whisky production at Yamazaki leaves other distillers scratching their heads in disbelief.
I remember asking Torii-san whether a family company was in a better position to take this approach. “I see family management as simply a form of style, he replied. “However, it is also true that this style has enabled Suntory to pursue its dream for a significant period of time and makes the moral values which lie at the heart of the business a top priority in the firm’s values.”
Seen in that light, the acquisition of Beam is the most visible manifestation of a very long-term strategy. What has resulted is the creation of the only firm that plays in every one of the world’s key whisk(e)y styles. Beam’s stake in bourbon, yes, but also blended scotch and single malt whisky, particularly peated. Beam Suntory is the biggest single player in Japanese whisky, but also owns Canadian Club and the world’s rye whisky specialist, Alberta Distillers; and then there’s Cooley, from Ireland. It is an astounding—and deep—portfolio.
It will be interesting to see how these Suntory principles are absorbed within American business culture and how the new management handles this range. “We have a deep conviction for making product,” said Torii-san. “In addition, [it is about] having a long-term plan, in terms of half a century or even a century, and being able to maintain a sense of humility.”
Humility is not a word you hear in whisky often—it is one which should be heard more often in business—but if these Suntory values are maintained, then a measured, long-term approach to building these brands can only benefit the category and consumers. Beam Suntory should not merely be a bourbon firm with some interesting stuff in its second tier.
It took $16 billion to break the duopoly of Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, but there’s a new kid in town, a new seat at the table. Who else could be our Distiller of the Year? Whisky’s pieces have been fundamentally rearranged. Things will never be the same. —Dave Broom
That’s our final Whisky Advocate Award announcement for 2014. We’ll see you in the comments section!