Coca-Cola Amatil's surprise decision to rebuff its right to buy Foster's Group's spirits business could leave SABMiller out of pocket.

All the dominoes had been set up neatly. SABMiller would buy Foster's Group and offer non-core elements of the Foster's business to Coca-Cola Amatil as part of a sweetener for ending the two companies' Pacific Beverages beer joint-venture in Australia. 

However, today (5 March), the domino chain broke down after Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA) said that, in fact, it won't be buying Foster's Australian spirits and RTD business. It turns out that CCA would rather have the cash, thankyou very much. It said today that its decision not to proceed with the acquisition will bag the soft drinks bottler AUD34m (US$36.4m) from SABMiller's purse. The exact reason for this payment is not clear.

There are a number of ways of looking at this development. For its part, CCA and its CEO, Terry Davis, stressed that the bottler's ten-year distribution deal with Beam Inc is more than ample for the time being. "With a strong pipeline of new Beam products to be launched into the market over the next 12 to 18 months, CCA has elected not to pursue the acquisition," Davis said. 

Hang on: Are we really to believe that CCA has turned down the acquisition because it is happy with its lot? Presumably cash was not a problem, because Davis had already outlined a capital spend for the year that included money to pay for the acquisition.

Goldman Sachs said in a note that a deal could have created meaningful synergies with CCA's existing spirits business, adding to profits. Perhaps, then, what is more telling is not what Davis says about CCA's plans for Beam, but what he alludes to having found during the due diligence process for the Foster's spirits assets. "A key consideration in the due diligence process has been weighing up the relative brand health and value of the existing Foster's brands versus developing our Australian spirits and RTD brand portfolio organically by leveraging the portfolio of global Beam brands," he said. 

It sounds rather like CCA found something it didn't like the look of and has decided to take the cash. Some analysts have today praised the group for showing fiscal prudence, suggesting that they suspect the same. Shareholders seemed satisfied with the outcome, with CCA's share price dipping only slightly today, before recovering to its opening levels by the close.

This could have a knock-on effect for SABMiller and its newly-acquired Foster's unit, should it decide to pursue a sale of the spirits unit. Aside from the AUD34m it now has to pay CCA, any potential suitors for the spirits business will be building CCA's scepticism into the unit's price tag.