Staff weep as final Johnnie Walker bottle leaves ‘home’
One of the most iconic names in whisky called time on its links with the Ayrshire town where it was first bottled yesterday.
The 200-year-old tradition of Johnnie Walker in Kilmarnock ended as distraught staff flooded through the gates of the famous Scots factory for the last time.
Only 70 of the 700 workers who once worked at the factory owned by the world’s largest distiller, Diageo, witnessed the final bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky rolling off the production line.
Some staff at the factory, which opened in the 1950s, are moving to new jobs at Diageo’s operations in Shieldhall, Glasgow, and an expanded bottling plant in Fife. Others have agreed to a severance pay-off and 82 are being made redundant.
Elaine Nicholl, 55, who started work at the Johnnie Walker factory in 1972, said: “It is a real sad occasion. I am incredibly emotional and I’m trying to hold it together. I was hoping to stay on till I retired.”
In 2009, after Diageo announced it was closing the plant, 20,000 people marched through the town demanding the firm stay. But the campaign failed.
Johnnie Walker founded the world famous brand in Kilmarnock.
A shopkeeper, he first produced the whisky that bears his name in 1820 and sold it from his shop, calling it Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky.
The firm joined the Distillers Company in 1925, which was acquired by Guinness in 1986. Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo in 1997.
Johnnie Walker has grown to become the most widely distributed brand of blended Scotch in the world, with annual sales of £130 million.
But in July 2009, Diageo made the devastating announcement that sealed the plant’s fate.
Worker Rhona McCristall, 51, shed a tear after working at the site for more than a decade.
She said: “I’m devastated. Waking up on Monday will be strange as I am used to going into work every morning.
“The problem is there is no work going here and this is the final nail in the coffin for our town.”
Elizabeth Reynolds, 35, said: “This place is like our home and those who worked here are like our family – it has been broken up now. I can’t believe this is my last day, it is awful.”
Diageo spokeswoman Pauline Rooney said: “Diageo’s focus throughout the closure programme has been to try to minimise the impact on our people and, where possible, to find new jobs for those who wished to remain with the business.
“We are pleased that nearly 200 of the Hill Street staff have successful moved to new jobs with Diageo, but we regret that we have been unable to find jobs for everyone who wished to stay with the business.
“Each and every member of staff in Kilmarnock deserves enormous recognition for the way they have handled this very difficult process.”
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