816 North

A toast to McCormick’s historic business in Weston

Updated: 2014-01-15T01:17:01Z


Special to The Star

The expansive wintery scene outside Mick Harris’ office window in Weston has all the elements of a vintage New England postcard.

Through the glass, behind Harris, a stand of trees casts long shadows over gentle slopes in the midday sun. Critter tracks are imprinted throughout the otherwise pristine snow. There’s a prevailing sense of serenity.

But just down the road from Harris’ office is a building bustling with people who work in the country’s oldest continuously operated distillery. They ensure that seven bottling lines run smoothly and that packing boxes are filled with vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila and assorted liqueurs as bottles roll off conveyor belts.

A dozen buildings, including three for barrel storage and two large shipping warehouses, and separate offices for administrative, sales and point-of-sale employees, comprise a sprawling campus set on 145 bucolic acres outside Kansas City.

Welcome to McCormick Distilling Co., a major player in the competitive modern spirits industry.

Kentucky businessman Benjamin Holladay, originator of the Overland Stage route between Weston and San Francisco, founded the Weston operation with his brother Major David Holladay in 1856 as Holladay Distillery. It made bourbon from the waters of a natural limestone spring that had been discovered by Lewis and Clark.

Barrels of the amber-colored liquid were stored in a so-called “ancient cave” on the property before being shipped off by wagon train or stagecoach.

Unlike many distilleries around the country, McCormick operated through Prohibition, making spirits for medicinal purposes.

In 1976 the complex was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today McCormick, which employs 160 people, ships 4 million cases of spirits a year to all 50 states and 57 countries. That includes upwards of 2 million cases of McCormick Vodka — quadruple-distilled from American grain — plus Tequila Rose Liqueur, made with cream from the Netherlands and Mexican tequila.

“Tequila Rose is popular in the states and Europe, and is really going strong in Africa,” said Harris, who is president of the company.

“Once upon a time” — a phrase Harris is fond of — “the Missouri River ran right by Weston, and the town was bigger than Kansas City,” he said. “Then the river changed course in the 1800s, and KC grew, and Weston didn’t.

“But here we are in 2014, and McCormick still produces quality spirits and receives awards for taste and innovation.”

Harris worked in the McCormick sales force for 23 years before assuming the distillery’s top job a year ago. He served as vice chairman of the board of directors for almost a decade.

He says the company’s growth from a local area producer of value-priced spirits to a national marketer of premium-priced products is rewarding.

“It’s wonderful to have watched the company double in employees during the past two decades,” said Harris. “And to roll out well-received brands like Hook’s Spiced Rum and Triple Crown North American Blended Whiskey, which we unveiled last October. It’s rewarding that our small retail shop on Weston’s Main Street has thousands of visitors each year who are loyal McCormick consumers.”

Once upon a time, Holladay developed a recipe for bourbon that people had a taste for.

“We still use that recipe today,” said Harris, “and yes, it’s closely guarded.”

McCormick has environmental initiatives, including Forest 360, closely tied with the launch of McCormick’s’ 360 Vodka. It was launched in 2008 with the assistance of the Missouri Department of Conservation to encourage employees to recycle.

“We planted indigenous trees on 40 acres of land surrounding the distillery,” said Harris. “We invited our business partners to participate in the Forest 360 project. We give recycling bins to every employee. We’re here to reduce our carbon footprint.”

360 Vodka, touted as the planet’s first eco-friendly vodka, received the 2012 Impact Hot Prospect Brand Award from Shanken News Daily, a news service that covers global spirits, wine and beer. Customers return the swing-top closures on the glass bottles by the thousands through the mail so they can be reused.

Harris excuses himself from his office, bedecked with Kansas Jayhawk and McCormick memorabilia and family pictures, and returns with a heavy, old-fashioned conveyer belt outfitted with brass casings that, until a year ago, was in use in the bottle house down the hill.

“McCormick made a major capital investment last year, installing state-of-the-art bottling equipment,” he said. “Our eye is on the future.”

McCormick Distilling Co.’s historical profile includes several owners and a sense of independent operator pride.

George Shawhan bought Holladay Distillery in 1895.

In 1936, after Prohibition had ended, Isadore Singer purchased the distillery as well as the McCormick label, which had been used by another distillery in nearby Waldron.

In 1950 Midwest Grain Products acquired McCormick as a warehouse for alcohol being produced in Atchison, Kan.

Business partners Ed Pechar and Mike Griesser bought McCormick in 1993. In 14 years they expanded from 35 employees and boosted sales volume from $50 million to $150 million.

Today, McCormick remains privately held by Pechar, who lives in Dallas; Griesser’s estate; and a small group of employee partners. Harris said that independent ownership and operation is rare in an industry where independents are routinely gobbled up by conglomerates, with assets acquired by other companies.

“Twenty years ago, many family-owned distilleries were sold, and there was a dramatic consolidation of once-independent companies,” said Harris. “Think about it. Retail liquor stores have folded into chains that compete with big-box giants such as Wal-Mart and Costco. There used to be dozens of liquor distributors in Kansas City, and now there are just a few.”

Harris attributes McCormick’s staying power to ownership commitment, keeping the brand fresh by updating logos and packaging, and brand innovation.

“We’ve grown by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years,” he said, “and we’re positioned for the next 20 and beyond.”

Terri French and Glenn Benner are busy taking inventory in the McCormick Country Store at 420 Main St. in Weston. Logoed apparel is at a seasonal low after holiday shoppers depleted the stock of caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts.

An apothecary jar is half full of chestnut-colored votive candles made by another shopkeeper up the street. The plump candles smell like McCormick Irish Cream, which is imported from Ireland.

Next to it is an empty jar with pink residue in the bottom.

“We sold out of the candles that smell like Tequila Rose,” said Benner, nodding toward the jar littered with bright pink wax shards. “Women love them.”

French is married to Russel French, who was president of McCormick Distilling Co. from 1978 to 1996. The couple moved from Lenexa to Weston with three small children when Russel accepted the job.

“We drove down Main Street, and I looked at Russel and said, ‘Really?’ ” laughed Terri, who admitted she wasn’t prepared for the small-town life.

The family lived in a two-room house in Weston until they moved into a home on the McCormick Distilling grounds. Although Russel French is retired as president, he is still a fixture around the business, and son Tyler is vice president of operations.

Today Terri and Russel live in a Victorian home in Weston and are active community boosters. She manages the McCormick Country Store, which relocated to an 1800s-era building on Main Street when the distillery stopped offering public tours in 1995.

“This is our showcase store,” said Terri, pointing to shelves of McCormick products. “There’s a representation here of everything McCormick sells.”

At the back of the store, which once housed a combination furniture manufacturer and mortuary, is a small bar where Terri and her nine part-time employees dispense 25-cent shots of McCormick products.

“We’re not a bar where people pull up stools and order drinks,” said Terri, “We limit customers 21 and over to two. It’s a nice way for people to try our brands.”

Not for sale are the decanters that line the top shelves throughout the store, hugging the green pressed tin ceiling. McCormick made the decanters, which are hot collectibles today, in the 1970s.

Elvis Presley decanters, including music boxes and one made of gold, are wildly popular. Hundreds of them are bought and sold on eBay and other Internet sites. Additional novelty designs include Billy the Kid, George Washington and college sports mascots such as the Washington State Cougars and the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Back at the distillery, seven production lines in the bottling house thrum loudly.

The space is a mix of old and new. Giant tanks filled with vodka and other spirits stand in the original section of the building, while shiny new bottling equipment and computer screens fill the rest of the building.

Employees wearing hairnets, safety glasses and earplugs are stationed throughout the massive building, monitoring thousands of bottles of various sizes as they are automatically filled, labeled, capped and dropped into shipping boxes.

Susan Haas, a 15-year McCormick employee, stops in front of distinctively shaped Triple Crown bottles being filled with whiskey on a slow rotating belt. Labels are systematically affixed to the containers by machines.

“This brand requires a different kind of bottling procedure because of its design,” she explained.

Haas greets colleagues as she expertly maneuvers steps and catwalks throughout the facility. She once worked in the bottling house as a union employee, but now she works on the company side in point of sale, managing the flow of logoed merchandise and materials for the sales force to use at trade shows throughout the world.

“McCormick is a great place to work,” she said. “We’re like family, and the owner cares about us.”

Haas pauses in front of two women hand-filling squat stone jars emblazoned with the Hussong’s Reposado Tequila logo. Each jar bears a unique registration number and a signature by Ricardo Hussong, whose family’s Baja California bar is credited with creating the first Margarita.

“We do this the old-fashioned way,” Haas said of the work bottling the tequila, which McCormick imports from Mexico. “There are just some things you can’t do on a modern assembly line.”

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