Is Kentucky bourbon becoming a victim of its own success? Workers at one of the state’s biggest distilleries voted to strike rather than work weekends, according to reports.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23-D set up a picket line Saturday in front of one of Heaven Hill’s operations outside Bardstown, according to the Nelson County Gazette.
The strike began Monday, when workers did not show up for work at bottling plants and barrel warehouses in Bardstown, according to WHAS.
Heaven Hill Distillery is the maker of Evan Williams, one of the biggest selling bourbons in the world. Other Heaven Hill brands include Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, Old Fitzgerald Bourbon, Larceny and Parker’s Heritage Collection.
The strike comes as Bardstown is preparing to celebrate the sold-out Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which begins Thursday. It is traditionally one of the busiest tourist weekends all year, with thousands of people pouring into the state to sample whiskeys and visit the distilleries. According to a report by spirits industry online publication Whisky Cast, the strike means Heaven Hill will not take part in festival activities, including tastings and the popular World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay.
Union officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to WDRB, about 400 workers voted overwhelmingly to strike when their five-year contract ended at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 10.
On Saturday, Local 23-D president Matt Aubrey told WhiskyCast that employees feel moving to a non-traditional work schedule would be detrimental to family life.
“They feel that rather than working to live, they’re trying to implement things to make them live to work,” Aubrey said. Heaven Hill is family-owned “and ‘hey, we want to treat everyone like family,’ they’re not treating these members like family,” he said. “All these members out here, they have a family, they have sons and daughters, grandchildren … they have loved ones that if what the company wants to preserve and what it wants to push, it’s gonna take these members away from their family.”
Heaven Hill released this statement: “Thursday evening, the membership of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23-D failed to ratify a new five-year contract with Heaven Hill. Since the company was founded, the support of our employees has been a source of pride and we have had productive conversations with the union for several months now regarding components of the contract. We will continue to collaborate with UFCW leadership toward passage of this top-of-class workforce package.”
Besides objecting to changing the work schedule from traditional Monday through Friday shifts, Heaven Hill employees also want to see more competitive wages.
Bourbon demand grows
Demand for bourbon has been growing in the U.S. and worldwide, putting pressure on companies to increase production. Before the COVID pandemic hit, sales of American whiskeys were up more than 37 percent from 2014 to 2019, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.
Kentucky’s distilling industry has been adding warehouses and visitors centers to keep up with fans.
In June, Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown unveiled a new visitor center that was part of a multiyear $65 million expansion to expand production capacity. Since 2010, according to the company, Heaven Hill has invested more than $100 million in distillery expansions, warehouse construction and tourism.
Before the pandemic, Heaven Hill hosted more than 100,000 tourists annually in Bardstown and in Louisville, where it also has the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience downtown.
It is unclear if the distillery’s visitors center will be open during the strike. Production at Heaven Hill’s Louisville distillery where Evan Williams is made continues and, according to reports, no other Kentucky distilleries are impacted at this time.
In 2018, workers at Four Roses went on strike for two weeks over plans to change benefits for new employees.