Diageo's new bottling line in Relay

Bottles of Jose Cuervo tequila move along a conveyor belt in the bottling hall. Diageo officials held an official reopening ceremony and tour today at their Relay plant, where they have invested more than $50 million to upgrade the facility where they blend, bottle and pack premium liquor brands, including Captain Morgan, Jose Cuervo and Seagrams. (Amy Davis / November 12, 2012)

Glass bottles moved briskly along new manufacturing lines — some filling with rum, others with tequila — as the plant manager explained just how groundbreaking this was for a site used to a more sedate pace.

The Baltimore County plant now can fill up to 300 bottles a minute, compared with 120 to 180 before the switch, said Matt Brownlee. Diageo PLC, a multinational alcoholic-beverage company based in London, pumped just over $50 million into the facility, replacing 40-year-old equipment to speed things up.

The new level of automation at the plant in Relay, off U.S. 1, requires fewer people to do the same amount of work. Diageo employs 140 there, about 100 fewer than it did before the investment and a 2011 decision to close a small-run products division.

But as workers, elected officials and union leaders gathered for the plant’s grand reopening Monday, the mood was exuberant — because Diageo positioned the sprawling complex for growth rather than shutting it down. The company closed a bottling plant in California last year.

“We’ve invested in this site to position Relay for the long term,” David Cutter, Diageo’s president of supply for the Americas, told the crowd. “I want this to be our No. 1 site.”

Workers cheered as he announced that the plant would add Smirnoff vodka to its production next spring. It now bottles Captain Morgan rum, Jose Cuervo tequila and Seagram’s whiskey.

John Lamm, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 24, worked at the plant for 25 years — until 2001. When he returned Monday for a tour of the renovations, he found the differences striking.

Once, “everything was done by hand,” he said. Automation increased over the years,but even so, the plant was low-efficiency, he said. Workers were “absolutely” concerned that it might be closed, Lamm said.

“Now … they’ve got high-speed lines, they’ve got space to work,” he said. “That’s a really great improvement.”

Maryland is used to the storyline of manufacturing plant closures. The most recent example was the Sparrows Point steel mill: About 2,000 employees were put out of work there this summer — and more elsewhere from the ripple effect — after RG Steel declared bankruptcy.

All told, more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared in the state in the past decade, according to federal statistics. But manufacturers still employ about 110,000 Marylanders. Some are hopeful for a resurgence locally as the United States adds jobs in the sector at long last.

“It’s definitely an exceptionally positive trend for middle-class workers,” said Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk.

For Diageo, location was part of the decision to invest in this plant. The site is served by rail. It’s a short jog from Interstate 95. And it’s near both the Baltimore harbor and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The company makes good use of those options, bringing its alcohol in by ship, rail and truck to be blended, bottled and packaged.

Cutter, the supply executive, said Diageo also has good relationships with local government officials and employees, which played a role in the decision. Training for the new work environment has gone so well at Relay that the company plans to replicate the instruction at other locations.

“This site was one worth the investment,” Cutter said.

Diageo inherited the complex when it bought Seagram’s wines and spirits business 11 years ago, but the site has a long history with alcohol. It’s where Maryland Distillery Inc. opened the state’s first legal distillery after Prohibition was lifted in 1933. (Construction actually started shortly beforehand under the assumption that the end was near.)

Old red-brick buildings sit on the 60-acre campus, a sign of its age. But inside the newly renovated bottling hall, it’s 21st century all the way. The gleaming machinery hums, thunks and hisses. A bottle can go from empty to packed away in a case in 10 minutes or less, everything from the labels to the fill-height checks handled by high-tech equipment.

The plant now uses less fuel and water and produces less waste, officials said. Brownlee, the plant manager, said the next step toward greater efficiency is to put more cases fresh off the manufacturing line onto trucks — rather than into the warehouse to wait for a ride to stores.

“We’re starting to do that,” he said. “We’re going to do more.”