It’s maybe the second-most famous drink in movie history, right after James Bond’s “shaken, not stirred” martini.
The movie is “The Big Lebowski,” the drink is the White Russian and it’s made with a product bottled at Fort Smith’s Hiram Walker plant — Kahlua.
The plant also blends and bottles Smithworks Vodka, an American-made vodka launched last year that uses water from Lake Fort Smith and corn from Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Smithworks was started in a partnership with country music star Blake Shelton, who helps promote the brand. It calls itself “the Spirit of the Heartland.”
The Hiram Walker facility, owned by Pernod Ricard USA of New York, a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard of Paris, blends and bottles a number of spirits, including Pernod Ricard’s Seagram’s Gin, the bestselling gin in the United States, and Hiram Walker liqueurs, ranging from peppermint schnapps to watermelon schnapps to triple sec to blackberry brandy. It produces about 6 million cases of various alcoholic beverages annually.
In a city hard hit by manufacturing declines during the past decade, the plant, set on 32 acres at the south end of town, is a bright spot, employing 230 workers.
A year ago, in an announcement in Fort Smith attended by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, executives of Pernod Ricard USA announced that the Fort Smith plant would be expanded to bottle its Malibu Rum line, to be sold by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville in markets where it is licensed to sell liquor.
Pernod Ricard transferred some production of the rum from its plant in Canada to Fort Smith, with the goal of producing 150,000 cases of Malibu Rum annually. The partnership was part of Wal-Mart’s Made in the USA program to bring more manufacturing back to the United States.
Pernod Ricard said at the time that the expansion would mean an extra 6,000 man-hours at the plant in the coming year, although it didn’t specify how many new employees that might mean. But news accounts at the time put the Hiram Walker workforce at 205.
Melissa Hanesworth, the managing director of the 357,000-SF Hiram Walker plant, said that a year later, the plant had hit its target of Malibu Rum production “and probably a bit more” and has added a few jobs.
As for Smithworks, it was initially distributed in five states, including Arkansas, and is now up to 12. The vodka, which sells for about $20 for a 750-milliliter bottle, received a gold medal at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and reviews appear to have been good. “It’s a nice little vodka, honestly,” Hanesworth said.
The Hiram Walker plant was opened in 1981 to produce 1.5 million cases of cordials yearly and has expanded several times since.
The Great Recession meant something of a slowdown in business, Hanesworth said, particularly since the plant produces premium spirits. “But it’s been pretty good the last few years,” she said. “We’ve seen some nice, steady growth.”
And despite losses, Fort Smith’s manufacturing base remains strong, Hanesworth said. Recent statistics, in fact, indicate an uptick. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 18,100 manufacturing jobs in the city in September, up 0.6 percent from a year earlier, though that’s far below the high point of 30,600 in 1999.
A tour reveals a spotless facility touched at every level by technology. Tanks of liquid sugar and the ingredients used in the blending of cordials also mean it’s sweet-smelling. Robots in a fully automated warehouse move cases of liquor from one part of the building to another.
“We may do 2 million cases of gin a year and then you may have a ginger brandy and one SKU [stockkeeping unit] — you only do 500 cases a year,” Hanesworth said. “It’s a fairly complex portfolio, but it’s fun.”
Inputs like sugar and the concentrate used in blending products are shipped by rail and truck to the plant, which sits on a rail line.
As for quality control, Hanesworth said, “Everything is sampled everywhere along the way.”
In the lab, workers do sensory evaluations of products, testing for smell and taste. They have to qualify as panelists, demonstrating, for example, that they can tell that two samples of liquor are from the same bottle or that it’s been spiked with something not supposed to be there.
“Some people are very good at whiskeys or scotches,” she said. “Some people are very good at vodka. Some people are very good at sweet. Some people aren’t very good at sweet.”
Testing, of course, isn’t limited to what humans can detect. High-tech equipment tests for pH, for example. A stereo microscope is used to detect any adulterants.
Labeling and bottling are highly automated. The line that handles all 175-ml bottles, whatever the flavor, can fill 120 bottles per minute.
Hanesworth, a brisk, no-nonsense woman who’s been at the plant for 16 years, is proud that Hiram Walker still employs the first employee hired by the plant in 1981 and the average tenure is 12 years.
The job is fun, Hanesworth said. “I call it Willy Wonka for adults. If you’re going to make something, it’s not so bad.”