Seagram Uncaps $24 Million Spirits Plant

May 24, 1991|By Kim Clark

Liquor will be made quicker here.

Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. unveiled its $24 million state-of-the-art spirits plant here yesterday, showing off fast-moving conveyor belts that take rattling and clinking bottles of Calvert whiskey, Wolfschmidt vodka and hundreds of other liquors to be filled, labeled and boxed.

The new, 400-worker bottling and liquor-mixing plant replaces two older plants, one in Dundalk and one on the same site in Relay, that employed nearly 800 workers.

Montreal-based Seagram sold the Dundalk plant to Montebello Brands Inc., a small local bottler best known for its introduction of kosher vodka.

Seagram made its biggest U.S. investment in the liquor plant here even though the industry has been shrinking for years. Edgar Bronfman Jr., president of the spirits giant, explained that "it's our business" and that the company wants to the low-cost producer in the industry.

Although U.S. consumption of hard liquor has fallen about 2 percent a year for the last decade and family-controlled Seagram's U.S. sales, in bottles, have dropped correspondingly, Seagram Co. Ltd. reported record profits of $756 million on revenues of $6.1 billion last year. Liquor sales contributed $4.8 billion of the revenues.

Besides expanding overseas by buying top foreign brands such as Martell cognac, Seagram has diversified by buying the company that makes Tropicana juices and acquiring a 24.5 percent interest in Wilmington, Del.-based Du Pont, Mr. Bronfman noted.

Don Nickless, vice president for manufacturing for the liquor division, said that Seagram decided several years ago that its plants in Dundalk and Relay were outdated. The Relay plant was built on the site of Maryland's first legal post-Prohibition still.

Though the company considered other sites, managers decided stick with Relay because they already owned the land and had trained workers, he said.

Because of the liquor industry's contraction, Seagram didn't design the new plant to bottle more liquor, just to bottle it more efficiently, he said. Seagram's Maryland production will remain stable at about 92 million bottles a year, but with 350 fewer employees, he said.

Louis L. Goldstein, Maryland's state comptroller, hailed the new plant, saying he always feels proud when he picks up one of the small cordial bottles airliners sell and realizes that millions of them are Maryland-made.

"I say, 'Let me see the label on there.' It's amazing. It makes me proud," he said.

In an aside, Mr. Goldstein revealed that he has always had a soft BTC spot in his heart for the liquor industry. "I made a lot of money during Prohibition," he said, explaining that he used to gather up empty pint and quart bottles he found on streets and sell them to bootleggers. "I paid for my first year of college that way," he said.

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