Windsor's Hiram Walker distillery keeps busy, eyes cleaner future

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell


Despite the economic turmoil created by COVID-19 — with bars and restaurants often closed — Windsor’s Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery is on pace to sell more than normal this year.

“It’s been a really crazy year,” said Pernod-Ricard’s senior director of Walkerville operations, Craig Dryburgh.

“We’ve had a good upsurge across all our brands.

“If we see the same as the last six months continue to the end of our fiscal year (June 30), it will be up significantly,” he said, referring to the annual production/sales figure.

The Hiram Walker distillery is enjoying positive performances across its collection of brands and is creeping towards the plant’s annual production capacity — which is more than it typically produces.

The Windsor plant, which employs 160 people, is the largest beverage alcohol distillery in North America. The plant is capable of producing 170 different brand variants under the Pernod-Ricard, Hiram Walker and Corby labels as well as partnership agreements.

“We’re capable of distilling 54 million litres of alcohol annually,” said Dryburgh, who arrived in Windsor last June.

“We’re not there at the moment, but we’re getting closer all the time. We have the space to expand, but there are no plans for that yet.”

Dryburgh said the industry is watching to see how the segments of the market that have declined will recover post-pandemic.

Sales to bars/restaurants are down significantly as are sales related to the travel industry.

However, purchases for home consumption are up and the preferences for packaging have changed.

“People are staying home so they’re buying bigger bottles, so they don’t have to go to the store as frequently,” Dryburgh said. “They’re reducing the risk of going out.”

The Windsor plant’s most popular seller over the past six months has been Malibu rum-based liqueur.

Other strong performers continue to be J.P. Wiser’s lineup of whiskies and Corby’s flavoured vodkas.

Products produced/bottled at the 163-year-old distillery also include: Lot No. 40, Pike Creek, Gooderham & Worts and Royal Reserve Canadian whiskies, Polar Ice vodka, Lamb’s rums and McGuinness liqueurs.

Though Pernod-Ricard no longer owns the Canadian Club brand, the local plant continues to produce the whisky under a partnership agreement.

“What we’ve seen, and this started pre-COVID, is consumers want choice and they want experiences,” Dryburgh said.

“The days of seeing consumers sticking to one or two brands their whole life is over. I think that’s why we continue to see the popularity of flavoured vodkas and other drinks.”

Dryburgh said there are no immediate plans on new product launches at the local operation.

Instead, the company’s focus will be on developing a 10-year plan aimed at reducing the plant’s environmental footprint.

“We have an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions by 25 per cent and keep it going,” Dryburgh said. “The aspiration is to get to zero emission. That’ll be on the 2050 timeline.

“Cost savings isn’t the driver for it. The environmental piece is just the right thing to do.”

The plant has already made a number of improvements that have cut sulphur emissions, reduced energy consumption by 40 per cent and wastes sent to landfill sites by 60 per cent.

An onsite biological water treatment facility has reduced wastewater contaminants by 90 per cent.

Hiram Walker also sources 90 to 95 per cent of all the corn, malt and barley it needs for distilling from Ontario suppliers.

“We don’t ship far,” Dryburgh said. “The vast majority is local.”

Though COVID-19 has hampered him from getting more familiarized with the city, Dryburgh is well aware of Hiram Walker’s and Sons standing in the community.

He’s participated in some discussions with city officials on a proposed whisky district for Walkerville and seen some early plans.

Dryburgh likes the idea of a Whisky Heritage Centre that would allow Hiram Walker to display some of the historic artifacts and its impressive art collection to the public. That collection includes a significant number of Group of Seven paintings.

“I know we’ve been a big supporter of the community and that’s something I support,” Dryburgh said.

“It’s important to our organization to be good neighbours.”