Beam

Bourbon bubble? Japan's Suntory buying Beam for $16 billion

January 13, 2014: 12:11 PM ET

Suntory will buy Beam in the second-largest Japanese buyout of an American company.

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FORTUNE -- Bourbon is to America what champagne is to France -- an alcoholic beverage defined as much by its originating geography as by its taste. But Japan is going to complicate things a bit.

Tokyo-listed Suntory Holdings today announced that it has agreed to acquire Beam Inc. (BEAM), maker of such bourbon brands as Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Knob Creek. It's a $13.6 billion deal, with Beam shareholders each to receive $83.50 per share in cash (25% premium to last Friday's closing price). Including assumed debt, the transaction price swells to around $16 billion.

That would make this the second-largest Japanese buyout ever of an American company, behind only Softbank's $37 billion purchase of Sprint last summer. Here are the top five:

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It also is just the third time that a Japanese company has paid more than $1 billion for an American consumer products company, following Japan Tobacco's $7.8 billion purchase of International Cigarettes in 1999 and Shiseido Company's $1.9 billion deal for cosmetics company Bare Escentuals in 2012. Neither of those two transactions, however, included the acquisition of a listed company (International Cigarettes was a spinoff from RJR Nabisco, while Bare Escentuals was owned by private equity firm Berkshire Partners).

The vast majority of large cross-border M&A between Japan and the U.S. is, not surprisingly, focused on technology.

So perhaps this is just a one-off, reflective of a bourbon bubble that began inflating when Don Draper started to sip on Mad Men. Beam reported "above-market growth" in bourbon during its Q3 earnings, and Beam North America boss Bill Newlands said on CNBC just last Thursday that "bourbon is the hottest category in our industry today."

But given that Suntory's Beam purchase is the largest M&A transaction announced so far in 2014, there also is the possibility that this is the tip of a cross-border iceberg, sparked by access to cheap debt and Japan's recent economic recovery. In other words, it's worth keeping an eye on. Maybe while enjoying something to drink...

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