BEAM SUNTORY Raises The Bar For Positive Impact In The Spirits Industry

Simon Mainwaring
7 min readDec 19, 2023
Photo Provided by Beam Suntory

Since joining the global spirits giant, Beam Suntory in 2017, Kim Marotta, Global Vice President, Environmental Sustainability, has focused on maximizing her impact within the $5.5 billion enterprise — and its impact on 6,000+ employees and the communities it “serves” at every level.

She’s focused on driving systemic cultural change to co-create a business model in step with consumer and business trends while maintaining the company’s presence on the global stage.

Marotta’s impact-oriented leadership style makes sense when you learn that her first career goal was to become a judge. After law school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she became a criminal defense attorney through the ’90s and early aughts, including serving as a public defender.

“I thought I would do it for a year and just learn how to be in the courtroom, get experience, then be a grownup litigator,” says Marotta. “I absolutely fell in love with it. It was one of these amazing opportunities where you have such an impact, a profound impact on the lives of individuals that you’ve never had before. And you’re often that only point of contact who was really either saving this person, saving this family, making a difference, even on a community … Huge stakes.”

Marotta and her husband lived in Milwaukee (they still do), and in the state of Wisconsin, the governor appoints judges. But her husband worked for the governor. “I had to shut the door on a judicial position — but it opened another,” she says.

Miller Brewing Company (now owned by Molson Coors) was the corporate giant in Milwaukee. “I went to them and said, ‘Here’s my skillset: Connected to the community; connected to social justice; lawyer; strategic thinker. What roles do you have?’”

How about a future career defending the planet? Defending a team, a bevy of brands’ reputations, hundreds of millions of consumers? Marotta joined Miller “at a time when they were getting their arms around sustainability,” she says. Thus, Marotta became one of the industry’s — and one of the nation’s — top experts in Global Corporate Affairs, ESG, and Sustainability.

Beam her up!

The Jim Beam BRAND was founded in 1795 by Jacob Beam. Beam Suntory was formed in 2014 when Suntory Holdings acquired Beam Inc., creating a world leader in premium spirits.

“To become the World’s Most Admired Premium Spirits Company, we must continue to lead in sustainability and responsibility, embracing partnerships to help create solutions that will drive our commitments forward,” says Greg Hughes, President and CEO of Beam Suntory.

The company trajectory is right on target to achieve that status. It evolved from a local distillery into a global spirits powerhouse with a diverse portfolio of iconic brands. It was a perfect fit for Marotta. Because the shared impact of all its stakeholders, including its responsible consumers, can be meaningful, powerful, and measurable in terms of the real world, Marotta believes.

Specifically attractive to her was Beam Suntory’s “Growing for Good” mission, which emphasizes sustainability, corporate responsibility, and the responsible consumption of its products. Every day, with every decision, she asks, “How do we not only grow our business but grow a direct, positive impact on our environment and our communities?”

To both exert and measure positive impact, Marotta thinks, it helps a lot to engage with local culture. For Beam Suntory, that means cultures on every continent except Antarctica (though, surely, there are plenty of Beam Suntory products imbibed down there. After all, the company’s been responsible for Jim Beam for seven generations, and Maker’s Mark since the Eisenhower administration, among many other household brands).

What does “culture” mean in this context? One great example Marotta shares is how strongly the company turned to the rich, ancient, sustainability-minded culture of Japan. Since right after World War I, Suntory has pioneered the “Art of Japanese Whisky.” Its flagship product in Asia is Suntory Whisky, with labels such as Hibiki and Yamakazi. They’re mostly high-end spirits, much prized and revered of late among whisky aficionados worldwide.

Every stage of a product’s lifecycle must be infused with both the company culture and the local culture where it was made. “It all [comes down] to values; the Japanese culture of giving back to the environment and giving back to communities,” says Marotta.

“Proof positive” of impact for Beam Suntory, says Marotta, considers three pillars, originating from the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “[ESG] … is what we do in the environment, what we refer to as ‘nature positive.’ It’s what we do in our communities, which we refer to as our ‘community positive’ pillar. And then it’s our responsible consumption [mission], which is our ‘consumer positive’ pillar.

Water Beam

As a cornerstone of its corporate strategy, each year, Beam Suntory lays out specific, ambitious, industry-leading goals related to sustainability and environmental consciousness.

The company is committed to achieving zero-waste-to-landfill across all its production sites, says Marotta. It puts a strong emphasis on responsible sourcing of ingredients, and reducing its carbon footprint.

All this while paying homage to the company’s heritage and history — where its culture was formed and informed. Like other industries, “I think we really embrace the past … in our industry,” says Marotta. And, at the same time, the company embraces “the great opportunity” unique to the spirits industry.

“When you think about alcohol brands or spirits brands, they’re all really connected to the environment. [We] can say that in all honesty because it comes through our history. The early founders from the Beam family … were corn growers in Kentucky,” says Marotta. “And they looked for opportunities for what they could do with corn.”

From that sensible opportunism, American corn whisky was created. As well as the premium “high-corn” (51 percent corn) bourbon, which is “strictly an American creation” according to an Act of Congress that dubbed it “The Official Spirit of America” in 1964. In fact, the labeling and import laws are as strict about the designation “bourbon” as those that inhibit the term “champagne.”

Marotta’s point is: No corn — no whisky. “That opportunity to put corn into spirits connects [us] back to the environment and connects back to farming and connects us always back to water.” So: no water, no drinks. Of any kind. This is one significant reason the Beam Suntory aims to reduce its water usage by 50 percent by 2030. That’s a lot, says Marotta.

But the company has a good start. “Most of our distilleries are located in regions where you get high-quality water, which really impacts your products. Whether it’s in Japan or Kentucky or Spain or Scotland,” says Marotta. It all depends on respect for water “This connection back to nature is just part of the DNA of our business. And it’s not something that came along in 1980 when sustainability started to be a topic that companies thought about — but really 230 years ago. It’s just how our businesses got started. It’s the roots of so many of our brands.”

Overall, though, the company’s goals regarding water are some of the boldest in the spirits and greater alcohol industry, says Marotta. Because it’s not just about those places that human industry and consumption have not yet rendered barren. “You have to look at it from a whole perspective, your entire watershed,” she says. “So, just like our other peers and competitors, we reduce within our operations. We look at every opportunity to reuse, recycle, and reduce. Our fifty percent reduction commitment — which we’re getting close to hitting — is about looking at all those opportunities. And, when you look at water,” says Marotta, you’re asking about its cost. Not just the water alone at its source, “but water and energy, heating it, cooling it down, steam and the like.”

So, now you’re looking at all your watersheds, says Marotta. “Because if you want to reduce your water, you have to also make sure that you’re in business for the long term, that you have good high-quality water in quantity, and that you have people within those communities that have access to clean water.”

To exert a strong impact on an industry and a region, says Marotta, you have to keep looking to culture. “We’re proud of coming to our Japanese roots. Water [conservation] is just part of the culture of Japan. So, having what we refer to as ‘natural water sanctuaries,’ which is essentially looking at the biodiversity, the nature benefit, and the protection of water, holistically.”

Beaming the message

The company’s long-term commitment to living its values and actively contributing to a more sustainable, equitable future is both noble and necessary for a corporate giant like Beam Suntory. Today, Marotta is focused on communicating those values with the company’s massive cohort of global customers and consumers. There’s work to be done.

“At least from some of what I’m seeing personally or what I’m seeing in some of the research, I think we need to tell [customers] about the company’s goals and about sustainability in general. “It’s a little bit more of us leading into the storytelling, but in an authentic way. You can’t go out and say, ‘“One of our American Whisky brands is saving the polar bears.’ It just doesn’t connect, says Marotta.

“I have to be candid with you. We’re a little bit in the earlier stages of our brands talking to consumers about [our goals and commitments]. I’m hoping we’ll start to see it with Maker’s Mark as they lead more in their consumer-facing messaging and the same thing with Sipsmith. and we can get some real data and come back and report back. But I’m cautiously optimistic.”



Simon Mainwaring

Founder/CEO brand consultancy, We First, bestselling author of We First and Lead With We, host of podcast, Lead With We.