The myth of Jim Beam, Bourbon, and ourselves


People get emotional when national brands get sold to foreign companies. It’s absurd, but I feel the same way, as many people were on announcement of the news that Jim Beam is now sold to Japan’s Suntory for $16 billion. This, despite the fact that there will be zero changes to the product or brand – the company isn’t moving its distilleries to Japan, or messing with the formulas of the products. The bourbon will still be made in Clermont, Kentucky, as Beams have done for generations. You’d expect a Beam to hand you a glass himself at the still house, having just poured it out from a barrel.


Brands waver between showing off the immense scale of their operations and the cozy intimacy that consumers tend to want. The Beam distillery, with its giant machines, is styled like a 1940s stillhouse. You’d think Jim Beam is a little family business, but still they can’t resist telling you, at the end of the tour, that they shipped some 7 million cases last year. And of course, that idea of a small business from the rural countryside is what we consume when we have a glass of Jim Beam – it’s not just the bottle or the taste; it’s the, as New Yorker reporter Ian Crouch puts it, ‘the sounds of insects, and the early-June Kentucky heat, and the smiling faces and laid-back ways of the members of the Beam “family”’.

It’s Proust’s madeleine brands pay homage to with each consumer interaction – to connect a consumer, with each sip/wear/swipe/bite, to a manufactured collective consciousness that transcend price points or value propositions. We buy the myth of Prohibition outlaws, rugged cowboys, white-collar workers, James Bond-esque agents, environmentally-and-culturally-conscious hipsters, and hope that our choices reflect the narrative we are telling about ourselves. It’s hard to bring international mergers and holding companies into that. Even with that aside – it’s hard to bring changing demographics and economic conditions into the picture. And that has always been the difficulty and challenge of branding itself – how does a brand change and still stay the same?


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