Diageo bottling plant closing marks end of an era

End of bottling operations at Diageo brings back memories for some longtime distillery employees

Sometime next month, more than 80 years of alcohol production and distribution history will reach what could be its final chapter when Diageo shuts down bottling operations at its Relay site.

With last month's news that the bottling of spirits will no longer take place at the site of nearly 62 acres on Washington Boulevard, some distillery veterans are looking back at decades of distilling, bottling and shipping some of the world's most popular liquors.

As she grew up in Relay, the facility was, in many ways, the center of life, according to Maureen Sweeney Smith, who worked at the plant in the 1980s.

Not only did her father work there before her, but she also met her husband at the bottling plant, where his own family was deeply rooted in the liquor business. Her neighbor was the plant's cafeteria cook. But Sweeney Smith's story is not unique.

The site had produced Seagram's Calvert whiskey and other products for many years before Diageo bought the company in December of 2000 and went into operation a year after federal government approval.

But the history of distilling in southwest Baltimore County goes beyond Diageo and Seagram.

In 1933, Maryland Distillery opened the plant on U.S. Route 1 as the state's first legal distillery after Prohibition, according to a 2012 account from the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development.

Soon after, it was bought by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, the New York-based subsidiary of Canada's Seagram Co., the release said.

In 2001, the Federal Trade Commission approved the sale to Diageo, a British company that produces major alcohol brands including Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Ciroc, Captain Morgan and Guinness, among other labels, according to the company's website.

Over the course of the plant's existence, it has seen a number of changes.

In 1988, Seagram closed down a plant it operated in Dundalk to move all of its Baltimore-area operations to Relay, according to Baltimore Sun records.

In 1991, Seagram sold off its iconic Calvert brand whiskey, named for the family that founded Maryland, and announced major layoffs as a result, according records.

Then, in 2012, what staff was left at the plant learned of a $50 million investment in the Relay site, upgrading its bottling equipment and facilities in a move company executives said at the time would bolster the role of the plant.

Then last month, the company announced it would cease all bottling operations in Relay, choosing to expand its operations in Plainfield, Ill., where it has another bottling facility.

For the company's current workers, the announcement was a huge blow, said Eltrentrose "Buggy" Reed, business agent for the Local 34D chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which counts many of the Relay plant's employees among its members.

The May announcement was preceded by an internal announcement to plant workers in April that the company planned to shut down bottling operations at the site by Dec. 31, 2015, said Reed.

The decision to move the date up, he said, was like pouring salt into an already painful wound.

A spokesperson for Diageo said the company currently employs 103 people at the Relay plant. That number will drop to just four people, plus an electrician, plumber and other support staff, this summer, Reed said.

"There was a level of disbelief," he said of the news that the plant would be cutting the vast majority of its workforce.

It's a scary time to lose a job at a manufacturing facility, Reed said, especially for some union members who he said have put in 29 and 30 years at the facility but haven't hit retirement age yet.

An executive board member in the union since 1993, Reed said he is trained in negotiating contracts, but much of his time in the past month has been spent talking to worried plant employees.

Every time he answers his phone, he said, "it's almost a daily counseling session."

But many former plant workers can remember much happier times at the brick complex.

"It was a huge employer in the 40s, 50s and 60s in this area," said Sweeney Smith, who now lives in Catonsville.

She was raised in Relay after her father, who worked in management for Seagram, was transferred there from Louisville. Many of her childhood memories involve the plant, she said. From visits to the plant doctor when she got sick or hurt to playing in the large fields surrounding the buildings, it felt like her family was always at the Seagram location. The family even had a plot in the company's on-site communal garden.

After graduating from Towson University, she took a job at the Relay plant. From 1981 to 1990, she worked as a supervisor and in human resources for Seagram, first in Relay and then at its Dundalk location.

"It's kind of almost a paternal feeling I have toward Seagram," Sweeney Smith said, noting that the company essentially funded her childhood, in addition to paying for her master's degree.

Sweeney Smith's husband, Rick Smith, worked as a forklift operator at the Relay plant for 30 years, from 1976 to 2006. The alcohol business is in his family too. His mother, Irma Smith, worked on the bottling line for 26 years, from 1955 to 1981, and an aunt and an uncle worked at the plant as well.

From company picnics to Seagram-sponsored softball tournaments in Ocean City, Smith said he has many pleasant memories from the plant. He said he can still recall the smell of the cooking process for the grain, which he said reminded him of burnt pancakes. Until the later years of his employment, it seemed like the most stable job a person could have, he said.

"When times are bad, people drink. When times are good, people drink," he said.

The only thing that changes, he noted, is the quality and price of what they buy, "and we made the expensive stuff and we made the cheap stuff."

When he started, Smith said, the company had very strict gender rules. Women were responsible for packing and labeling the bottles of gin, rum and other spirits while the men handled the heavy equipment, like driving the forklifts and moving the barrels of ingredients.

"There were women's jobs and there were men's jobs," he said.

Sweeney Smith even has an old office memo that laid out the rules for women in the workplace. Female employees were to be terminated if they became pregnant.

Eventually, that changed, along with many other things at the longtime facility.

After Diageo bought Seagram and took over the Relay operation, Smith said there were a lot of changes.

First, Diageo removed much of the company's management. "That was kind of sad," he said.

Those who were left had to learn to adapt. "Seagram always treated us really good, and we were dealing with a different company now," Smith said.

Irma Smith's, Rick's mother, met some of her best friends at the plant. The busiest time of the year, she said, was always during July and August, when there was a rush to put out the winter holiday products, like gift packages for Christmas and New Year's.

For her, working elbow-to-elbow with as many as 29 other women on the bottling line produced some of the best times she can remember.

"Everything was hand-done," she said, adding that the plant employed between 300 and 400 people at the time she worked there.

Oftentimes, the women would sing Christmas songs together while they packed red and green merchandise in the sweltering heat of mid-summer, she said.

"It was like a big party. It really was," said Irma Smith, 95. "It was a very happy time."

Geraldine Adams, 90, loved her time at the plant so much she said she can't pick a favorite memory.

"I did a little bit of everything," she said. "I loved it."

Adams worked on the bottling line from 1949 to around 1986. Her sister, who worked at the plant, helped her get a job there, she said. Her father, too, worked for Seagram for a time, and she knew Sweeney Smith's father and even worked under Sweeney Smith's supervision for a while.

With good hours and friendly coworkers, she said, it was the perfect job to have. After work, she and other women from the line would go together to parties or out for drinks, she said.

In recent years, she said, it's been strange to pass by the plant and see so few vehicles parked in the workers' lot after so many jobs were eliminated by innovations in machinery and technology.

"I'm sorry to see any of it close," she said. "There were a lot of people who worked there."

For Sweeney Smith, watching the recent movement to embrace small distilleries and microbreweries, including Heavy Seas brewing company on Hollins Ferry Road, just two miles away from the Diageo plant, over the past couple years has been encouraging.

"It's kind of like a rebirth," she said.

None of the four former employees said they were particularly surprised to hear of the plant shutting down bottling operations, though they wonder about what will happen to the $50 million worth of new equipment and other upgrades that the site received only a few years ago.

"We thought it was a big boost," Smith said of the upgrades made in 2012.

"I'm sure there was writing on the wall," he said.

"It's going to be sad," he said of seeing the facility largely empty later this summer.

But he doesn't think the plant will be empty for too long. "I don't expect to see a wrecking ball," he said.

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