Hiram Walker President Taking Canadian Whiskey Global

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Windsor/Claire Brownell

To view the accompanying video visit: http://blogs.windsorstar.com/2014/03/09/hiram-walker-president-taking-canadian-whisky-global/

Hiram Walker president Patrick O’Driscoll wants to bring Windsor back to its glory days as an international whisky exporter.

The Riverside Drive distillery and bottling plant has changed a lot from the days when it was run by Hiram Walker himself. Some of the changes are obvious – prohibition is over, Al Capone is no longer a regular visitor and the company doesn’t need to smuggle the good stuff across the river.

A less obvious change is the flagship brand of rye produced at the historic plant. It’s now Wiser’s, not Canadian Club – and for O’Driscoll’s dream to become a reality, he’s going to have to convince Americans to drink a lot more of it.

“I think every CEO or president needs to have a dream,” O’Driscoll said. ”The traditional business of Canadian Club, which went to our competitors, is no longer produced in Windsor, so my vision is to bring Windsor back to being a very strong centre of Canadian whisky and Canadian whisky exporting. And that’s all about the Wiser’s brand.”

Pernod Ricard, a multinational liquor corporation, bought the company that owned the Hiram Walker plant and sold the Canadian Club brand to Jim Beam Worldwide in 2005. Pernod Ricard recently introduced Wiser’s to the American market, thinking now is a good time to capitalize on the popularity of brown liquors in general and Canadian rye whisky specifically.

Recently, this region has had a lot of reminders that multinational corporations can pick up and leave at any time. Heinz is handing over operations of its plant in Leamington after more than 100 years and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne threw the city into a state of anxiety about the long term future of the Windsor assembly plant after he declined government assistance to retool it.

Late last month, O’Driscoll announced Pernod Ricard was doing the opposite, with a total of $9 million in upgrades planned to expand production, upgrade facilities and add a new bottling line at the Windsor plant. For Hiram Walker, investing in Windsor makes sense, O’Driscoll said.

“Windsor has great advantages, being the southernmost part of Canada, very good communication routes into the main markets of the USA and also into the largest domestic market here, which is Ontario. Secondly, the position of Windsor is very well situated for big agricultural capabilities right in the backyard of Southern Ontario,” he said. ”There’s a very strong workforce there. They’re very skilled and we’ve had great relationships with them.”

It hasn’t all been happy news. In August, Hiram Walker negotiated a new collective agreement with its workers that involved concessions from the union after years of job losses.

Automated production, market forces and the loss of a bottling line to a U.S. plant all took their toll on staff numbers. O’Driscoll said he expects the recently announced upgrades at Hiram Walker will allow the company to employ some of its seasonal workers year-round and may lead to new hires in the future, but likely not as many as there used to be.

“The reality is that we will probably never be going back to those 2008 levels,” O’Driscoll said. “It is a challenging industry. It’s very, very competitive. It’s quite mature. Operating in the Canadian market produces some challenges for us, because of the liquor board structure. It’s actually not a very profitable market for us compared to other countries around the world.”

O’Driscoll said renewed interest in high-quality spirits could create jobs. The company is always looking for ways to automate tasks and make production more efficient, but truly great whiskys are labour-intensive to make.

Hiram Walker plans to add capacity to the Windsor plant to make more of those high-quality spirits, O’Driscoll said. “It’s about producing something that’s maybe a little bit more complex, it may have a few more bells and whistles. Generally, that requires more human intervention.”

O’Driscoll’s personal favourite of those high-quality spirits is Corby’s Lot 40, recently named the number one Canadian whisky in the world.

“After a particularly stressful, strenuous day, to me there’s nothing better than a Lot 40… either on the rocks, or if I’m feeling that I’m going to venture into making a cocktail, a Lot 40 Manhattan really can’t be beat.”