Fortune Brands, maker of Jim Beam Bourbon, said first-quarter earnings will be higher than expected due to strong demand, favourable foreign exchange rates and continued supply chain efficiencies.

Earnings per share before one-time charges and gains will grow at least 19%, CEO Norm Wesley said in remarks prepared for the Reuters Consumer Products & Retail Summit. That tops current analyst forecasts for gains of between US$0.76 and US$0.81 per share.

"The year is off to a great start for Fortune Brands. The strong momentum that fueled our excellent fourth quarter has continued into the early months of 2004," Wesley said. "Each of our businesses is performing at or above our expectations."

"For the full year, while it's still early, our performance so far reinforces our confidence that we will comfortably achieve our long-term growth goals and improve our returns, as well," he said.