By Saabira Chaudhuri
Pernod Ricard SA extended its bet on whiskey with a deal to acquire the New York-based maker of Jefferson's bourbon and plans to open its first distillery in China.
The maker of Chivas Scotch whisky, Jameson's Irish whiskey and Absolut vodka said it agreed to buy Castle Brands Inc. for $223 million through a cash tender offer. Pernod has expanded in American whiskey with recent investments, taking a majority stake in Rabbit Hole bourbon in June and purchasing Texas-based TX whiskey earlier this month.
The world's second-biggest international liquor maker after Diageo PLC is under pressure from hedge fund Elliott Management Corp., a prominent activist investor that has become one of its largest shareholders. Elliott has criticized Pernod's management, saying the Paris-based company has underperformed its peers and should raise its operating margin.
On Thursday, Pernod nominated two new external directors following criticism from Elliott that its board was too homogeneous and insular. It also announced a share buyback of up to EUR1 billion ($1.11 billion) and said it was raising its dividend.
Pernod shares climbed 3.1%, as the company reported full-year results that beat analyst estimates.
Bourbon has been a high-growth category for spirits makers in recent years, helping companies like Pernod and Diageo offset sluggish demand for less-fashionable categories such as vodka. Sales of U.S. whiskey globally rose 8.7% by volume last year, according to industry tracker IWSR, while bourbon climbed 7%. Vodka volumes declined 2.6% and rum grew 1.7%.
Pernod said it plans to open a distillery in Emeishan, in China's Sichuan province, that will produce malt whiskey. Pernod's Asia head, Philippe Guettat, said the company is aiming to give a local edge to the drink and plans to appoint a Chinese master distiller.
Asia has been a focus for global alcohol makers as they grapple with declining volumes in the West. Pernod said its sales in China rose 21% last year.
Chinese drinkers, who have favored local spirit Baijiu and cognac, are increasingly contributing to growth in whiskey sales. Whiskey volumes climbed 11% in China last year, according to IWSR, driven by Scotch consumption.
Pernod's net profit for the year ended June 30 was EUR1.46 billion, down from EUR1.58 billion a year earlier. On an organic basis -- which strips out currency moves and acquisitions -- operating profit grew 8.7%, beating estimates for an 8% rise. Sales climbed to EUR9.18 billion from EUR8.72 billion.
--Anthony Shevlin contributed to this article.
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at firstname.lastname@example.org