Monday, June 8, 2015

The 'Other' Warehouse at Buffalo Trace

My fondness for Weller 12 is well-known and since it has been in such short supply lately, I was deeply moved when I spotted a whole pallet last week at Buffalo Trace. Let's hope it is on its way to a bar or liquor store near you.

In the whiskey world, we talk a lot about warehouses, and almost all of the time we mean those buildings where they keep the barrels full of aging whiskey. This is not about that kind of warehouse.

This is about the finished goods warehouse, sometimes called the distribution center (DC). That's where the products go from the bottling line. There cases are stacked on pallets, shrink-wrapped, and put away. Hopefully they won't be there for long, but will be drawn out for shipment to a distributor. This picture was taken (by Mark Gillespie) last Wednesday, so it's possible this pallet of Weller wonderfulness is already on a truck, making its way to thirsty Weller drinkers.

While Weller and I are having our moment, I am actually standing between the present and future of distilled spirits DCs. In the direction I'm facing is the current paradigm. It's a big, open space in which cases of spirits, shrink-wrapped on pallets, stand in neat-ish rows. Sazerac has warehouses like this at each of its bottling facilities, the largest of which is in Owensboro, at what used to be the Glenmore Distillery. The shrink-wrapped pallet-loads are put away with forklifts. Later, when they show up on an order, another forklift retrieves the load and takes it to a truck.

Each pallet is identified by a bar code that is scanned as it moves through the system. Every putaway space has an address. Theoretically, things can't get lost but if you show up at the right address and the product you want isn't there, you're pretty much screwed.

Behind me is the new paradigm, an automated system. The one at Buffalo Trace is brand new. The concept isn't new. I've seen them for many other industries, from auto parts to pharmaceuticals, but this is the first one I've seen at a bourbon distillery. There may be others. The DC is usually not on the tour.

When we think about our favorite whiskey makers, we mostly think about the whiskeys they make, but most of them make more than just whiskey. Buffalo Trace produces just about everything. American whiskey, of course, is made on site from scratch. Other products, such as liqueurs, are mixed from their component parts and bottled there. Still others, such as foreign whiskey, vodka, rum, and tequila, are made elsewhere and simply bottled there. It's hundreds, maybe thousands, of different products. Most are produced in a range of sizes. It's a lot to keep straight.

Almost everything leaves the site in bottles, packed into cardboard shipping cases, by way of the DC.

The first thing you notice about the new section of the DC is its height, about four times higher than the highest stacks in the old part. Instead of open space it is a matrix of shelves. Think of them as rows and columns in a three dimensional spreadsheet. It's mostly dark. The system doesn't need to see.

Compared to the traditional DC, it's a much better use of space. The other thing is that everything that happens within the system is done by machines. Conveyors move each load to the right section and an automated forklift swiftly puts it away. Everything is identified by chips and bar codes. It can run 24-hours a day if necessary. The brain knows exactly where everything is all the time.

It uses less labor, of course, but with the way Sazerac is growing, nobody is losing their job. It's faster, safer, more efficient, more reliable, and more secure. All new production is going into the new warehouse. When the current space is emptied, it will be used to store things like bottles and labels. The space where those materials are stored now probably will become another expansion of the visitor's center.

It takes a minimum of 12 years to make Weller 12 but when the whiskey is ready, you want there to be as little as possible between it and you. That's what this new DC is all about.

(Photograph by Mark Gillespie.)


Mark Fleetwood said...

Like in Terminator 2, the computer system running the inventory will eventually become "self aware", and then we're all really screwed shortage wise.

MadMex said...

Picked up a Weller 12 a couple of weeks back for around $25. It was the last one on the shelf and I was surprised to see it. A no brainer. Whatadeal.

Anonymous said...

Yep, ya sure can keep those prices down if you produce more product with less human intervention. I wonder why their marketing plan doesn't mention the jobs lost at other distilleries who charge a "human rate" for the production of equally good or better spirits ? What a scam. Now if they can just get those pesky machines to start buying and drinking that commercial ethanol...

Erik Fish said...

"What a scam. Now if they can just get those pesky machines to start buying and drinking that commercial ethanol... "

Peculiar how it's always "Anonymous" who wants us to believe inflammatory language is a substitute for quality, and paying more for lower quality is somehow virtuous because it is the product of more "human intervention". And I love this nostalgic 70s flavor that presumes people still accept "commercial" as a bad word....