Seagram distillery gets sobering news Liquor lines sold

layoffs expected

November 02, 1991|By Kim Clark

Calvert brand whiskey, first concocted in Baltimore in 1939, never had anything to do with the noble British family of the same name that founded Maryland.

And soon it won't have much to do with Maryland either.

Joseph E. Seagram & Son's decision to sell some of its lower-priced liquor lines will probably result in layoffs at the distillery in Relay, the plant's manager, Frank Noppert, said yesterday.

But the 460 jobs at the plant, near U.S. 1 and Interstate 95 in southern Baltimore County, will be safe for a while, he said.

For at least the next several months, Seagram will continue to make and bottle the liquors it sold to American Brands Inc.

On Thursday, the Montreal-based beverage conglomerate announced it would sell Lord Calvert Canadian Whisky, Calvert Extra and Kessler Blended American whiskeys, Calvert Gin, Wolfschmidt Vodka, Ronrico Rum and the Leroux line of cordials for $372.5 million to the owner of rival Jim Beam bourbon.

Seagram will keep the Relay plant, but since the lines it is selling make up about 20 percent of the plant's production, their loss will eventually force the plant to cut back, Mr. Noppert said, adding that he didn't know when or how much. But he hopes Seagram will pick up new business to take up the slack.

"The company has some plans to do some things," Mr. Noppert said, but he declined to elaborate.

Industry analysts have suggested Seagram sold the lines to raise an acquisition kitty. The company has insisted that it just wanted to sell its low-profit brands to concentrate on more lucrative products such as Chivas Regal scotch.

Named after the family that founded Maryland, the Calvert brands were developed by Seagram at its Baltimore facility in 1939, said Mike Spaur, editor of the Maryland-D.C. Beverage Journal.

The first Lord Calvert whiskeys were premium liquors, he said. Their bottles were registered and numbered to show they were a limited edition, Mr. Spaur said. In 1944, Calvert Special was the most expensive brand of blended whiskey in the United States, he said.

But since then, Seagram has let Calvert's premier image fade. Today the brand is part of the mid-priced pack, Mr. Spaur said.

The descendants of George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, have disliked the whiskey's name for generations, said George H. Callcott, a Maryland historian.

Mr. Callcott, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, said that several of the descendants have told him they are "much offended by the presence of the whiskey."

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