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The trade war is hurting Jack Daniel’s, but customers aren’t paying for it

A bartender pours Jack Daniel's whiskey into a jigger during a media preview of the Jack Daniel's Lynchburg Barrel House, an official bar operated by maker Brown-Forman Corp., in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. While demand for alcohol in Japan is dropping, worldwide sales of whiskey and other spirits are projected to climb an average of 4.9 percent each year through 2017, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Photographer: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The trade war continues to pinch profits for Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman. But the company has been able to eat the expense.

Brown-Forman said Thursday its sales and earnings topped forecasts, even though it’s paying the costs of higher tariffs from the European Union and China without passing them onto customers by raising prices.

CEO Lawson Whiting said in the earnings report that rather than raise prices on its trademark Tennessee whiskey and other spirits, “We continue to invest in consumer momentum by absorbing most tariff-related costs.”

The company, which also owns premium Kentucky bourbon brands Woodford Reserve and Old Forester and tequila makers Herradura and el Jimador, added that it is boosting its marketing to tout new products like Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Apple whiskey. Brown-Forman said advertising expenses rose 10% in the quarter.

Overall sales in America remain strong, rising 10% from a year ago. The company has benefited from shifting consumer tastes, as drinkers (particularly Millennials) are shying away from less-expensive beers and wine in favor of premium spirits.

Brown-Forman said bourbon sales climbed 22% from a year ago while tequila sales shot up 11%.

That strength is helping offset slower growth overseas. Revenue in developed markets (i.e. Western Europe, Australia and Japan) rose just 1% while emerging market sales were up 4%.

Brown Forman’s stock fell 6% Thursday. The company also “modestly reduced” its 2020 income growth outlook by one percentage point because of the “uncertainty in the current economic and geopolitical environment in certain emerging markets and the travel retail channel as well as higher input costs.”

During the call, the CFO talked about “short-term headwinds from tariffs and input cost pressures.”

Still, fears that Brown-Forman would be a casualty of America’s multi-front trade war appear to have been overblown. Shares of Brown-Forman are up 34% this year and are not far from their all-time high.

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