U.S. whiskey had a minuscule presence abroad until about 25
years ago. At that point, marketers started looking overseas to
replace the sagging U.S. demand at the time, as drinkers here
turned to other options, such as vodka, gin, tequila and even
drugs, Mr. Cowdery said. Japan, in particular, proved to be fertile
ground. "Younger Japanese men didn't want to drink what their
fathers drank. Their fathers drank Scotch. So they wanted to drink
something else. So a bourbon boom started."
Since then, the trend has spread to the point where leading U.S.
brand Jack Daniel's now exports to more than 130 countries,
generating more than half its business from foreign markets,
according to brand owner Brown-Forman. Even so, Jack Daniel's still
ranks seventh among whiskeys globally, according to a recent report
from Drinks International. Jim Beam, sold in 110 countries, ranks
11th. The top seller is Bagpiper brand from India, which remains a
large but fairly isolated market due to high tariffs on
Euromonitor forecasts that through 2016, 70% of yearly U.S.
whiskey growth will come from non-U.S. markets. As such, American
companies are beefing up marketing overseas. Louisville, Ky.-based
Brown-Forman first launched a globalization strategy in 1994 and
now has major sales and marketing operations in London, Sydney,
Hamburg, Guadalajara and Warsaw. Beam Inc., the Illinois-based
liquor company that owns Jim Beam, has put global marketing muscle
behind a black-cherry flavored Jim Beam line extension called Red
Stag, which launched in the U.S. in 2009 and is now in 22
countries. Jim Beam's U.S. creative agency is Strawberry Frog but
it uses various overseas agencies for global work.
At the same time, companies are getting a boost from Discus
(Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), which conducts
whiskey seminars around the world. It also brings in foreign
journalists for tours of the American Whiskey Trail, which includes
stops at distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee as well as George
Washington's Distillery at Mount Vernon. The efforts are partly
funded by a federal government program designed to promote U.S.
agriculture commodities and products.
No matter where U.S. whiskeys go, they never seem to stray from
their roots in the American South. A tagline from a recent print ad
in the U.K. for Jack Daniel's , for instance, states that "from
some bar stools, you can see all the way to Tennessee,"referring to
its distillery in Lynchburg. "People everywhere connect with the
genuine, unpretentious nature of the place and the people," said a
spokeswoman. The brand's agency is Arnold .
Even smaller brands are heading abroad. Consider Maker's Mark,
which is owned by Beam and is made in tiny Loretto, Ky. The brand's
global breakthrough came from a bit of luck after Toyota opened a
Camry plant in Kentucky in the 1980s. Japanese managers "all landed
here in Kentucky as Scotch drinkers, and it didn't take long before
they were introduced to Maker's Mark," said Chief Operating Officer
Rob Samuels. "And when they would return home they would take
bottles of Maker's Mark back to Japan." Today, Maker's sells in a
dozen large international cities, including London, Sydney and
Of course, marketers still must adapt to local traditions and
flavors. In Asia, for instance, bourbon is mixed with fruit juice;
in Holland it's paired with bitter lemon, said Max Shapira,
president of Heaven Hill Distilleries, which owns the Evan Williams
brand. "We have to bend our traditional rules a bit," he said.