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Sweet Sales For Sour Mash Abroad



Rebel Yell. To U. S. drinkers, the catchy name of this bourbon evokes the Old South and the war cry of the Confederacy.

The brand is popular in Australia, too, but consumers there associate its name with rebels of the rock `n' roll variety. In ads that are heavy on electric-guitar music, distributor United Distillers PLC shows an ultracool dude in a black leather jacket. The product's slogan is "Give us a yell"--the Australian way of saying: "Call me when you want me." And Rebel Yell is backed by a three-year, $6 million ad campaign.

LEATHER & METAL. Rebel Yell's campaign is just one of dozens the bourbon industry is waging around the world. "Export is the hot spot," says Barry M. Berish, president of Jim Beam Brands Co., the No. 1 distiller. From 1985 to 1990, total exports of Kentucky bourbon and its close cousin, Tennessee whiskey, more than tripled, to an estimated 11 million 100-proof gallons. Recession and higher taxes worldwide have hurt overall growth, but distillers are optimistic. After scoring big in Japan, sour-mash makers are busily advertising in Australia, Britain, and other affluent markets. And top brands, such as Jack Daniel's, are showing blistering foreign growth of 25% a year and up.

The outlook abroad is better than in the U. S., where "the whole product category has been very mature," says Anthony Greener, managing director of Guinness PLC's United Distillers, which owns Rebel Yell and other brands. Rising temperance and the vodka fad have also hurt. M. Shanken Communications, which publishes liquor-sales data, estimates that U. S. bourbon sales slid from more than 30 million cases in 1975 to about 17 million recently.

For many years, bourbon suffered from a lowbrow reputation overseas. "Americans were the fellows in plaid trousers waving big, fat cigars," explains Brian O'Byrne, international vice-president at Austin Nichols Distilling, makers of Wild Turkey. The whiskey these uncouth types drank obviously lacked class. But the surging popularity of American pop culture has changed that. "Now, anything that hooks into American heritage does well abroad," says Bill Samuels Jr., who heads Maker's Mark Distillery Inc., which expects to export about 21,000 cases of its prestige bourbon this year.

STEPPING OUT. In Japan, distillers have exploited that American heritage quite nicely. I. W. Harper's distributors have focused on the bourbon's label, which features a dandy in a top hat. For young, affluent Japanese, the Harper "Bowing Man" embodies Manhattan sophistication as he cavorts in Japanese ads on New York rooftops. The Japanese drink more of United Distillers' I. W. Harper than White Horse, the leading Scotch in Japan.

Despite continued success, bourbon's growth in Japan slackened in 1990, from 50% a year to the low teens. So distillers are turning to other markets. In Australia, Rebel Yell, Old Crow, and Wild Turkey have joined Jim Beam, which has been there since 1960 and sells more than a half-million cases a year with its cowboy-image ads. Wild Turkey's radio campaign features American bartenders discussing the brand's virtues.

Bourbon makers also see an untapped market in much of Europe. Britain, for example, bought only 100,000 cases in 1989, but trendsetting liquor chains there, such as Oddbins, have started stocking George Dickel and other bourbons. Of course, not everyone is calling for shots. Says James Bruxner, chairman of Justerini & Brooks, maker of J&B Scotch: "To a Scotch drinker like me, bourbon has a very nasty taste." But he concedes that young British consumers find drinking bourbon "a bit daring."

Europe may not be the roaring success Japan has been. Despite good results in Italy, Emanuele Bassino, managing director of importer Spirit, doesn't foresee a bourbon boom there. "It's a trend among young professionals who have traveled abroad," he says. "But it's a contained trend among a certain set."

Don't bother telling distillers that. The industry is betting that bourbon will catch on big in Greece and Spain. And to capitalize on foreign sales, United Distillers is investing $20 million to expand production in Kentucky. The Old South won't rise again, but bourbon makers think they have a fighting chance.Christopher Power in New York, with Robert Neff in Tokyo and bureau reports

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