Success has bottler in high spirits


The success of its new kosher vodka made in Little Italy has spurred Montebello Brands Inc. to buck a national trend of liquor-company layoffs and buy a bigger local bottling plant to expand.

Montebello, a Baltimore-based bottler known for its inexpensive and unusual alcoholic beverages, will buy the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. plant in Dundalk and will hire more workers, company President Alfred Bernstein said yesterday.

The 57-year-old company needed additional space to bottle its new kosher gin and vodka, as well as its increasingly popular alcoholic iced tea, Mr. Bernstein said.

Montebello has sold 30,000 bottles of Simka, its rabbi-certified liquors, in the first year of sales, said Leo A. Conte, general manager.

"We had to do something; we have run out of space here," Mr. Bernstein said of the company's Bank Street facility. Montebello, which recently topped the million-gallon-a-year mark, could triple its production in the new plant, company officials said.

Mr. Bernstein, the son of the company's founder, said he will move his approximately 40 employees to the Dundalk plant next spring and probably will hire some of the Seagram workers as well. He said he hadn't decided how many new workers would be hired.

Seagram has been phasing out production at its 370-worker Dundalk plant for several years in anticipation of completion of its new bottling plant in Relay.

The Seagram closing is part of an industrywide consolidation prompted by declining consumption of alcohol during the past 10 years, industry observers said.

While consumption of vodkas and gins have remained fairly stable, consumers are slashing their intake of whiskeys, pushing overall per capita consumption of hard liquor down 2 percent to 3 percent a year since 1980, said John Burcham, executive director of the National Liquor Stores Association.

"People are becoming more and more health-conscious," Mr. Burcham said. "And there is more information out there about drunk driving and the misuse of alcohol."

Increased costs also are expected to contribute to the industry's troubles, he said. Mr. Burcham said he expects the sales decline to accelerate early next year when the federal government increases taxes on liquor by 8 percent.

While other liquor companies have been hurting, Montebello's sales have risen about 5 percent a year because it has maintained strong sales of its Vladimir brand vodka and has come up with new and unusual products, company officials said.

"We keep our eyes open for all these specialties. We look for anything that comes on the market that's a fad or whatever. . . . We look for a niche because we are little guys in the business," Mr. Bernstein said.

"We were the first people in the country to bottle kosher vodka and gin, and it is going really well."

Montebello, which buys liquor from distilleries and bottles it, said it buys rabbi-approved, pure corn vodka for its kosher vodka and uses equipment approved for cleanliness under Jewish food codes to receive the kosher labels.

In addition to being boosted by Simka kosher liquors, Montebello's sales have been climbing a few percent every year because the company specializes in low-priced, unadvertised liquors, Mr. Conte said.

Even if a recession hits hard, he predicted "people are not going to stop drinking . . . They will drink in moderation . . . and drop back from the no-man's land" into low-priced brands like Montebello's.

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