When Beam spun off from Fortune Brands last year, the American whiskey company turned its attention to vodka-soaked Russia, hoping to double sales there by 2015. Its timing is risky: In the past year, President Vladimir Putin has expanded the country’s biggest crackdown on alcohol since the Cold War. Late-night alcohol sales, outdoor drinking in public areas, and booze ads on television, radio, and billboards are banned. That’s on top of a 200 percent increase in beer taxes in 2010. The aim is to improve the health of Russians, who drink 15 liters of alcohol a year—down from 18 two years ago.
Despite all this, Beam’s expansion is going according to plan. That’s mostly because it’s targeted upscale drinkers whose tastes are starting to favor whiskey over vodka. High-rolling drinkers with a penchant for Western culture, and money to burn, have helped make imported whiskey the fastest-growing spirit in Russia, per capita the fourth-hardest-drinking country in the world. Whiskey consumption grew 48 percent last year, according to International Wine and Spirit Research. Tequila sales jumped 45 percent.