By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on January 19, 2024.
It has been a staple of the Lethbridge business community for more than 50 years, but next month the Black Velvet bottling facility will close its doors.
The whisky brand, once owned by The Black Velvet Distilling Company, was purchased by American Heaven Hill Brands, known for Burnett’s vodkas and dry gin, HPNOTIQ, and Admiral Nelson’s spiced rum, in 2019.
Though the operations remained in Lethbridge after the sale, a statement from Heaven Hill Brands Chief Operations Officer, Debbie Morris, says, “after extensive deliberation and a comprehensive financial analysis, Heaven Hill Brands has made the challenging decision that revitalizing the on-site bottling operations is financially unfeasible.”
Citing a decline in the efficiency of the bottling process at the plant, the company says the production decrease leading to the ultimate decision to shut down comes as a result of “aging equipment and the lack of investment by the previous owners of the bottling facility.”
The company says the bottling operation will be relocated to Bardstown, Kentucky and Lethbridge employees affected by the closure will be offered “free outplacement services.”
While the bottling operations will cease, Heaven Hill Brands say the distilling operation will remain in the city and the brand “remains steadfast in its commitment to the continued success.”
Calling the decision to continue the distilling process in Lethbridge a strategic move, the company says the Black Velvet brand remains strong.
The decision to close the doors to the bottling plant however is said to come “after extensive deliberation and a comprehensive financial analysis.”
Though it is unclear how many employees will be impacted by the closure, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 401 lists Heaven Hill Inc. Distilling as having 40 members in Lethbridge.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the distillery added hand sanitizer to their product line, a move made by many distillers throughout the province.
A tentative closing day is set for of the last week of February, but Heaven Hill brands has yet to confirm a specific date.
The distillery was established here in 1973.
According to website Whiskipedia, when Constellation Brands which bought the Black Velvet brand in 1999, decided to concentrate all its whisky production in 2009, it renamed the former Palliser Distillery here to Black Velvet Distillery.
As of 2019, the company was producing about three million cases of whisky a year.
In a statement to The Herald, UFCW Local 401 stated:
“We are frustrated by the Company’s decision to close the bottling operations at its Black Velvet Plant in Lethbridge and move them to the US.
“Workers are facing an unprecedented global affordability crisis and struggling to make ends meet. Moving jobs to Kentucky is unnecessary. This will take money out of the local Lethbridge economy and hurt Lethbridge families when they are already facing significant challenges.
This decision is especially unfair given that Heaven Hill, the owner of the Plant, is a perfectly profitable company.
We are examining every angle of the Company’s decision to determine how we can best support our members and minimize the impacts of this heartless decision. This is just another example of how we need to stop the squeeze on workers during this challenging time.”