‘The barrel is more than a container for the whiskey, it’s an ingredient,’ says our guide Craig Embry as I join a behind-the-scenes tour at the Brown-Forman Cooperage, in an industrial unit a jet’s breath from Louisville International Airport in Kentucky. It’s not your typical tourist destination, but a glimpse into this barrel-making factory opens up a fascinating world that few of us ever see.
Embry is quite rightly proud of the barrels, which the cooperage tailors to individual distillers’ requirements. This is the longest operating cooperage in the USA, and they make about 600,000 barrels a year. That’s a barrel a minute, to save you the math. Brown-Forman is the only major drinks company – it owns Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Finlandia Vodka, El Jimador Tequila, and Southern Comfort, just for starters, or maybe for aperitifs – to have its own cooperage. It allows them more control over the woods, and the flavors those woods produce.
‘It goes into the barrel as Jack Daniel’s,’ Embry tells us, ‘but all its color and flavor is coming from the barrel. They’re a vital ingredient in bourbon-making, though the different distillers have very definite demands to distinguish their spirits. Woodford Reserve wants barrels that are at least 9 months old, but Jack Daniel’s likes barrels that range from 6-9 months old. We hold some of the woods for several years. We buy cut logs. We don’t own our own forests. We get wood from all over, from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Minnesota.’
The recent harsh winters in the USA have created a shortage of cut timber, due to the difficulty of accessing the forests as normal. Alongside the current boom in sales of bourbon and American whiskey, that means there’s a barrel shortage. The cooperage is working 21 hours a day to try to meet demand.
‘There are 33 staves in a barrel,’ Embry says, as we watch a workman slotting the staves together inside the metal hoops, and examining a huge pile before choosing the next one. It may look like an industrial production line, but there’s a great deal of human skill and knowledge involved.
‘Barrels have no nails, no glue,’ Embry tells us, as we strain forward to hear him against the background of noise. ‘They are held together and sealed purely by the pressure of the wood. A good worker can do 250 barrels a day. The skill is in picking the exact right staves to complete the barrel. Staves are not all a uniform size. One white oak tree is 16-22″ in diameter. We only use what we call the butt cut, and one tree gives you one barrel. The rest of the wood goes for other purposes, like housing and furniture. White oak has a chemical in it called tyloses, which other woods don’t have, and this seals the barrel. They figured out thousands of years ago that this was the best way to hold liquid.’
Barrels might seem like simple things, boring even, but they’ve been around for over 2,000 years and without the barrel we wouldn’t be able to enjoy drinks like brandy, cognac, sherry, madeira, rum, bourbon, or whiskey. They’re all made in different ways, to different legal requirements, using different ingredients and different woods. Bourbon must have a new barrel by law, while Scotch whisky can re-use barrels. Some of Brown-Forman’s barrels end up in Scotland and Mexico, making whisky or tequila and imparting more flavors, after they’ve done their duty nursing Kentucky bourbon to maturity.
Visiting the cooperage is like descending into Dante’s Inferno. It’s an immersion into a world of the hammering of wood and the beating of metal, of conveyor belts thundering around a vast warehouse space, of sudden jets of steam, and of the dramatic sight of flames leaping from the floor to char barrels, which are then doused in water with a loud hissing sound.
So next time you enjoy a shot of bourbon or a glass of sherry, give a toast to the humble barrel that helped make it what it is.
TOURING THE COOPERAGE
The cooperage is not open for public tours but private tours can be booked through Mint Julep Tours.
All photos by Mike Gerrard