On July 10th, I wrote about the massive flash flood which devastated the Town of High River on June 20th, 2013 (see story here). Although I wrote about the effects of the flood upon the town, the focus of my article was the impact the flood had upon Highwood Distillers. The folks at Highwood had literally only minutes of warning before the flood hit, and the severity of the event was such that some distillery staff had to be rescued from the tops of their cars by helicopter.
The aftermath of the flood left the distillery a mess.
Highwood Distillery’s Finished Goods Inventory – Post Flooding
As you can see from the photo above; after the flood, when the staff re-entered the distillery, they were greeted with the heart wrenching scene of their entire finished goods inventory tossed and mangled by the flood waters. Pallets of spirits had toppled and broken, and there was no way to safely sort through the mess. Even if there had been a way to salvage the tumbled bottled inventory, the Highwood staff decided not to take any chances with respect to the quality of their finished products. Unfortunately this meant that all of Highwood’s finished good inventory had to be destroyed.
In case you are wondering, to clean up a mess this big, you need to bring in the heavy equipment:
Bring in the Bobcats
According to Highwood’s National Sales Manager, Sheldon Hyra, the entire plant had to be cleaned to the cinder-block walls. All finished goods were discarded, as well as all raw materials, and much of the equipment.
“The good thing is we will hopefully being starting production again soon, and everything will be sparkling shiny new!”
Of course it wasn’t just the water which tossed everything asunder. There was also the muck and the mud which seemed to be everywhere.
Main Entrance Lobby Floor on the Day After.
But, as I said in my initial report, the folks at Highwood are resilient. The small-town blue-collar work ethic which I admired during my previous visit to the distillery is serving them well. The process of cleaning up and rebuilding is coming along, and they plan to begin new production as soon as the new equipment is in place and working smoothly, hopefully around mid September.
Some of you may be wondering just what sort of production are we talking about? It takes three years to make whisky in Canada, and much longer to make those great aged whiskies that Highwood has become known for. What I have wondered about from the beginning of this disaster is, how much of the barreled whisky was compromised? After talking to various sources within Highwood I finally have a clear answer. And happily the news is very good. In fact, according to my contacts at Highwood; most and perhaps even all of the aged inventories survived intact.
Sheldon told me,
“Only the bottom row of barrels touched any water, and we were very lucky the water was in our plant for only about 12 – 24 hours. I have a picture from my TV on Friday afternoon of a news crew helicopter flying by our plant. I took the picture of my TV screen, and (as you can see) everything is dry around the building.”
Aerial shot of the Distillery on the day after.
When I asked Sheldon about the barreled whisky inside the plant he stated,
“Our biggest worry walking in was, would the barrels be standing or (would they) have all fallen over like the finished goods?”
The tension as the Highwood staff entered the barrel room must have been intense as Sheldon’s next comment was telling,
“At that point you likely would have seen the end of Highwood Distillers, as they are our “liquid gold” and replacing 33-year-old barrels takes about 33 years …”
The Barrel Room immediately after the Flood
Fortunately the barrel rooms are separated with cinder-block walls and strong overhead doors which prevented most of the water from entering, and as a result, the barrel rooms received very little impact from the flood. As you can see from the picture above there was only a small amount of mud on the floors and the bottom barrels look like they were barely touched by water.
According to Sheldon, the clean up was pretty high-tech,
Dry Ice Blasting Bottom Barrels
“All the barrels had to be moved and all the floors and walls cleaned; and we had to pay close attention to the bond numbers and physical barreling dates (obviously for Canada Excise). The bottom layer (of barrels) which did touch the water for a very short time was removed, and then (the barrels were) ice blasted (with dry ice). Over the barreling time of years, none of the liquid makes its way out, so we knew (that) in the few hours these barrels were exposed to a little water, they would not have been permeated; but we also wanted to make sure no remnants remained so for 2 weeks we had 4 massive generators and dry ice blasters spraying 12 hours a day.”
I asked Sheldon about the dry ice blasting and he explained,
“The ice blasting is the coolest new technology in restoration. It is a very expensive process basically the same as sand blasting without any mess to clean up, and more importantly, the (cold) temperature kills any mold, spores, etc.
The liquid has been tested (and found to be) fine. We will continue to test and monitor those specific barrels with all of our brand new lab equipment and testers that are coming as well.”
What all of this means is that my (and of course the Highwood Distillery’s) worst fears regarding the impact of the June 20th Flood, have been averted. The timing for when the distillery will re-commence production is projected to be in mid September, 2013. As the life blood of the distillery (the barreled whisky) is intact, once the new bottling line is operational, they will be able to pick up virtually where they left off leaving the distillery poised to make a full recovery.
Of course, it will not be easy. Highwood has not been to produce any spirits for almost 2 months, and when they begin production they must work hard to regain customer loyalty especially in the new markets they have recently penetrated. Personally, I am placing my bets upon their success as that blue-collar work ethic which I admired so much four years ago when I visited their distillery has served, and will continue to serve them well. This is a group who knows how to roll up their sleeves and face down a challenge.
In case you were wondering about where they are with respect to the clean up, here is a recent picture of the Finished Goods area which was littered with debris when the staff re-entered the distillery after the flood:
Finished Goods Area all Cleaned up
And those Barrel Rooms …
I would say, that looks pretty good, wouldn’t you?
As I was wrapping up this story, Sheldon Hyra asked me to pass along this message from Highwood Distillers,
“We are counting on people to understand the magnitude of this unprecedented disaster for all Southern Alberta, and are hoping people will show extra support for all affected businesses, including their/our Highwood, Potter’s & Century Distillers brands.”