Mind-bottling

A day in the life at the NLC bottling plant's vodka production line

Moira Baird mbaird@thetelegram.com
Published on January 4, 2011

The day before Christmas Eve at the liquor corporation’s bottling plant in St. John’s, the Iceberg Vodka line is running.

Hundreds of clear plastic bottles with one distinctive ice-scalloped edge are slowly wending their way along a narrow conveyor belt at the bottling plant that is tucked inside the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp.’s (NLC) 70,000-square-foot warehouse.

The bottles are rinsed with vodka, then filled with vodka blended with iceberg water, capped, labelled and laser etched with a lot code and date.

On this day, the code is 10327 15:42 — the 327th bottling day of 2010 at 3:42 p.m.

The size of the bottle determines the speed of the line. Today, it moves slowly — 60 bottles per minute — because of the time it takes to fill each of the bottles, the plant’s largest.

The 1.75-litre bottles are destined for markets in the U.S., such as Florida, to replenish inventory sold during the holidays.

Near the end of the line, two people inspect the bottles to make sure each one is properly filled, labelled and capped. If not, they’re removed from the line by hand.

Another pair of employees at the end of the line remove the inspected bottles and pack six in each carton for shipping.

Today, they’ll pack 2,500 cases — all destined for mixed drinks, cocktails or just plain shots.

In another corner of the plant, rows of skull-shaped bottles sit upside-down on pegs.

Rinsed and dried, they’ll be filled with vodka distilled by Crystal Head, the company owned by Canadian actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd.

Some parts of the Crystal Head production line are the oldest in the plant, including the 60-year-old bottle filler modified a couple of years ago to accommodate the unique bottles.

Although Crystal Head vodka is sold in the usual volumes — 750 millilitres and 1.75 litres — filling the skull-shaped bottles is anything but standard.

“In the world of bottles, most necks … are vertical to the ground. All filling equipment is made so that it drops the liquid straight downward,” said Mike Hawco, NLC’s director of distillery operations.

“That bottle is tipped backwards. That was probably one of the first major challenges we faced — how to fill it.”

The plant engineered its own solution to automatically fill the skulls — but much of the work on the Crystal Head vodka line is done manually.

The bottles are placed on the line, rinsed and drained by hand. They’re also hand corked and labelled, and plastic wrap is individually placed around the neck before shrink-sealing.

The whole process requires some choreography and good timing.

“It’s very much a team-based pace,” said Kristina Stevenson, NLC production manager.

“Our top pace is probably 20 bottles per minute.”

She figures the hand-labelling — a sticker applied to the base of the skull and the UPC code placed on the bottom of the bottle — is the slowest part of the process.

Stevenson said the plant bottles about 500 cases of Crystal Head per day.

They’re destined for markets in parts of Canada, Texas, Florida and California, and the vodka company aims to extend its reach into Europe.

Crystal Head vodka also has a unique filtering process — charcoal-filtered three times and filtered another three times using Herkimer diamonds supplied by Aykroyd’s company.

“They swear that it adds a silkiness to it that you wouldn’t have otherwise by just going through a commercial filter,” said Stevenson.

The stones are actually clear, quartz crystals that resemble diamonds. Originally found near Herkimer, N.Y., the 500-million-year-old crystals are almost as hard as diamonds and are reputed to emit positive energy and have restorative powers.

“This is unique to Crystal Head vodka,” said Tarah Mowry, NLC quality control manager. “No other vodka is filtered through Herkimer diamonds.”

In a video on the Crystal Head website, Aykroyd says the triple-diamond filtering gives the vodka a “greater purity of spirit.”

Purity is a word Aykroyd frequently uses to describe both the vodka and its production in Newfoundland, which he called the “most romantic place in the world” during a TV talk show interview last month.

Concentrated alcohol arrives at the NLC plant in 25,000-litre, steel canisters and is blended with local water according to the requirements of each product.

The plant’s 19 blending tanks have storage capacity for 10 times that amount.

NLC-owned brands include rums, such as Screech, Old Sam, Ragged Rock Amber and Cabot Tower, along with Shiver vodka and gin, Amherst Gate and Big Land rye whisky, and Charenac brandy.

The plant also has contracts for other companies’ brands, such as Lemon Hart rum, Iceberg vodka, and Crystal Head vodka.

It has a five-year contract to bottle Crystal Head, an extension of an earlier deal that saw the plant produce one million bottles of vodka in less than two years.

The initial contract was for 30,000 bottles.

“We’re pretty suited to new-brand development,” said Greg Kerr, NLC brands manager.

“Crystal Head is a good example.”

One reason for this is the plant is both a modern, high-speed bottling facility and a less-mechanized bottler of specialty products, such as Crystal Head.

“We do have the ability to do both,” said Hawco.

And with a staff of 45 employees, the plant can operate both lines at the same time.

Last year, the plant earned $602,000 on sales revenue of about $6 million.

Vodka is a big part of the sales — accounting for more than three-quarters of the approximately 360,000 cases of liquor bottled annually.

Iceberg vodka, the more established of its vodka customers, has been bottled in the plant since the mid-1990s.

It’s made with water from icebergs harvested off Newfoundland and Labrador.

“It is all iceberg water,” said Hawco. “Every millilitre came from an iceberg.”

The NLC plant also packages 22 per cent of all dark rum sold in Canada. Its dark-rum competitors are giants in the industry.

“The only ones that would be bigger would be Diageo, which would have the Captain Morgan brand, and Corby (Distilleries) which would have the Lamb’s Navy,” said Kerr.

Dark rums have a long history in maritime and sea-going regions, such as Newfoundland, the Caribbean and Britain.

The dark rum colour comes from the length of time it’s aged in oak casks.

Caramel, produced by heating sugar, is also added to younger rums, such as Screech and Old Sam, that are aged for up to two years in casks.

Screech comes from Jamaica and Old Sam is shipped in from Guyana.

“It’s made to specification,” said Hawco. “One of the biggest challenges is to make sure the specification is the same every time, like any other product.”

Once the alcohol is ready for bottling, NLC tasters — a handful of corporation managers and suppliers — compare the final product with samples sent by the distilleries.

“A lot of the people we’ve met, who are very, very good at this and have done this for a long time, will do it by odour and not even by flavour,” said Stevenson.

The alcohol is checked daily as part of the plant’s quality control process — everything from colour to taste to packaging.

“Not only are we tasting rum before it’s sent, but after it’s blended and before we package it — we taste everything,” said Mowry.

“That goes for vodka, as well, to make sure that it’s been blended correctly and it’s in keeping with the brand.”

Mowry’s quality control lab also checks for alcohol content, PH and conductivity, which measures mineral content.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Crystal Head Vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Bottles of Crystal Head vodka at the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp.'s bottling plant in St. John's.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Crystal Head Vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Filled and capped, Crystal Head vodka gets the shrink wrap treatment by hand at the NLLC plant.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Crystal Head Vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Crystal Head vodka bottles are dried upside-down after rinsing. Producing the vodka in the distinctive skull-shaped bottles is a mostly hands-on operation.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Crystal Head Vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Vodka pours into a Crystal Head bottle.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Crystal Head Vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Packaging bottles of Crystal Head vodka for shipment. The plant landed the contract to blend the vodka in 2008.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Crystal Head Vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Crystal Head vodka is filtered through Herkimer diamonds before bottling.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Iceberg vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Iceberg vodka is packaged and ready to ship.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Iceberg vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Filling 1.75-litre bottles with Iceberg vodka at the NLLC plant in St. John's. The plant has been bottling Iceberg vodka since 1996.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Iceberg vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

Iceberg vodka bottles destined to make their way onto the production conveyor line.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Iceberg vodka

Published on 04 January 2011

The quality control lab at the NLLC bottling plant.

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram