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In the spirit: Hiram Walker & Sons Inc. turns out cases of liqueurs by the millions at Fort Smith facility.

MANY ARKANSANS probably would be surprised to learn that one of the leaders in the international liqueur industry operates in Fort Smith.

That's right, Fort Smith.

Hiram Walker & Sons Inc., the nation's second-largest manufacturer of liqueurs, produces some 75 different products at its Sebastian County blending plant.

The Christmas season is an especially busy one for Hiram Walker, which accounts for about 18 percent of the $350 million domestic liqueur market.

While liqueur sales are for the most part non-seasonal, Hiram Walker enjoys brisk business during this time of the year.

About 25 percent of its sales come in November and December, according to Randy Herbertson, marketing director of the liqueur line.

"It's our biggest time of the year," says Herbertson, who expects 1992 sales to be 5 percent higher than last year. Restaurants, hotels and bars stocking up for holiday customers account for most sales, he adds.

The plant, which opened in 1981, churns out about 3 million cases of schnapps, brandies, cremes and formals annually, not to mention another million cases of whiskeys yearly.

The varieties abound: peppermint schnapps (the top-selling domestic brand), apricot brandy, creme dementhe, amaretto, Sambuca, sloe gin, triple sec and even Kahlua.

Yes, Kahlua, the coffee liqueur generally associated with Mexico but in actuality produced in Mexico, then shipped to and finally blended and bottled in Fort Smith.

Raw materials for the liqueurs are transported to the facility in bulk via rail or truck and stored in stainless steel tanks.

"All processing is done in stainless steel tanks because they don't impart any foreign minerals or odors, they don't affect the product in any way," says Joe Herrmann, manager of the Fort Smith plant and a 20-year veteran of the liqueur trade.

Liqueurs, like other forms of spirits, use distilled spirits from grains such as corn. The difference lies in the flavoring and other ingredients such as sugar added in the blending process, Herrmann says.

Hiram Walker, based in Michigan and owned by the Allied-Lyons conglomerate of London, shut down its Burlingame, Calif., facility two years ago in a consolidation move, shifting its entire liqueur operation to Fort Smith.

From the central location, the distributing arm of the liquor giant services not only the entire country but overseas markets such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Europe, Africa and Japan.

A joint agreement signed four years ago between Japan's Suntory Partners Ltd. and Hiram Walker allows the U.S. firm to distribute the Japanese corporation's products -- Midori, Suntory whiskeys -- in this country.

Technological Treasure

While he is extremely proud of the widely varied line his plant produces, bearing exotic titles such as Kirchwasser and Rhum Grandier, Herrmann is more than a little praiseworthy when it comes to the highly advanced technology involved in the plant's operation.

Much of the $85 million facility is automated, using robotics driven by a computer control system.

The 10 bottling lines rely heavily on robotics, allowing 7-10 people to do the work of a 20-man crew.

An automated storage and retrieval system uses "robos," robots guided by signals from wiring buried in the floors, to deliver goods from the 550,000-case storage system to the shipping docks.

"We're currently running eight production lines a day, 24 hours a day in shipping and receiving, 18-20 hours in the production area," says Herrmann, allowing for four hours of maintenance and repair in the production department.

The plant, employing 230 full-time workers, adds 170 during the holiday season to allow for increased production and sales.

In order to attract individual holiday sales, Hiram Walker produces several specialty items, "gift packages unique to Christmas," says Glenn Lackey, the plant's customer service manager.

The packages includes glasses and mugs along with the spirits, not to mention a Kahlua and coffee cake gift set.

While most of its sales are geared toward bulk purchases -- the average shipment being 900-1,000 cases, according to Lackey -- Hiram Walker isn't beyond focusing on individual needs.

The holiday months are prime sales times, but they are also prominent for an increase in consumption of alcoholic products.

In response to this increase, Hiram Walker and several other national liquor distributors formed the Century Council, a self-regulating advisory committee that sets guidelines for advertising and promotion of alcoholic products.

"The biggest focus of |the council~ is to present to the industry and to the public the act of responsible drinking," Herbertson says.

Part of that includes not using either children or Christmas figures such as Santa Claus in any advertising, thus making alcoholic consumption less attractive to minors. Advertising on college campuses is also prohibited, Herbertson says.

"The bottom line is our position, 'Let's be responsible citizens,'" Herbertson says. "These are social beverages that are not to be abused."
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Taylor, Tim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Nov 30, 1992
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