By Debbie Shocair
When you invite me to tour your plant and in the same breath claim, “We rarely let the press come,” they already have my undivided attention. Add to that the plant being a mainstay of the Bourbon industry and you get to keep my attention, at least for an hour or two.
That mainstay of Bourbon is the Independent Stave Company (ISC), and located down in the little town of Lebanon is their Kentucky Cooperage. Among supplying many others in the Bluegrass with new white oak barrels (Wild Turkey, Michter’s, Willett, etc.), ISC currently makes 100% of the barrels Jim Beam uses for their wonderful amber delights. Family-owned for about 105 years, ISC describes the business relationship with Jim Beam as a “partnership,” claiming, “We don’t just sell a container. We work with Jim Beam to maintain quality and to find solutions to any problems that may occur.”
Early this month I found myself on an intense and thorough tour of their plant, a tour beyond what the general public enjoys. I saw countless men (and a few women!) working hard in the complicated production line that takes milled oak from plank to barrel in a process that literally took my breath away. I left the factory smelling of sawdust and campfire. I thought it was sort of sexy, and if you can bottle that and sell it to DIY-oriented men… well….
I learned a great deal, from how the American Oak that is harvested can essentially replenish itself to the tremendous importance of the moisture in the wood from start to finish. Perhaps what I found most compelling was the skills of those who work the lines in hot, noisy, demanding conditions to make what is essentially the womb in which young whiskey develops into the amber nectar so many enjoy.
Beneath what must be the largest ceiling fan I’ve ever seen (at least 25 feet across),* the skilled folks at Kentucky Cooperage begin with bare planks. Though there is a clever bit of automation, it is important to note that the machinery serves primarily to transport the emerging barrel from stage to stage as it evolves. Almost all of the real “work” in making barrels progresses under the strong hands of the headers, joiners, risers, and coopers, whose every step is carefully checked by quality control personnel. It can take up to five years to learn the trade and become a skilled barrel raiser, and each man’s pay here is dependent not only on his hours, but also on the quality and dependability of his personal performance and production. It’s a fairly complicated formula that determines each man’s pay and also ensures that the barrel which arrives at any given distillery is absolutely competent to carry out its duty in changing clear try-box goods to the delightful bit of amber gold you find in your bottle.
As I set out for my tour, decked out in the requisite protective headgear and eye protection, I was amazed by the sights and sounds around me. Workers of every age were focused intently on the task before them. And each worker’s task was essential. Though there was a bit of a glance given to the group I traveled with, no attention was lost on the task at hand, that of making barrels, step by step. I saw raw planks transformed into the heads, longer planks formed and raised into the familiar barrel shape, and a wondrous progression of drying, steaming, and testing, as the raw wood became a whiskey barrel, whose only containing force was the metal bands holding the planks in place.
Barrel-making is a timber hungry process. The appropriate part of one felled white oak tree yields a log (cut at about 14” diameter), which in turn should yield approximately 3-4 barrels. During what was a brief barrel shortage, Kentucky Cooperage made sure their largest customers had all the barrels they would need, and the smaller distillers got what was available after. It’s good business, smart business, and, albeit with some grumbling in the craft sector, it ensured the best production possible would be maintained everywhere.
Charring the barrels was perhaps the most exciting point in the tour. There were two different points for flame to kiss the wood: one for the heads and one for the barrel body. It was exciting to not only see the flames erupt, but also to feel the heat as the wood emerged from what was a beast of burning. The length of time in the fire determines the level of char, and Jim Beam’s barrel receive a #2 char on the heads, #4 on the body of the barrel. The deeper char tends to weaken the wood, because the most fragile part of the barrel is the head, the char is kept at #2 to help keep it strong. The round belly of the barrel spends about 40 seconds in the flames to get that beautiful alligator #4 char, the black magic that takes new distillate from raw to wonderful.
Kentucky Cooperage is part of a family-owned company that prides itself on innovations (the family boasts engineers who have been essential in the evolution of the production line) and caring for its employees. Over and over I heard about long-term tenure and an organization whose concern was not only for the growth of trade, but also for the general company culture as it related to its workers. The current plant GM began as an hourly employee, and our tour guide had worked in every department. There seems to be a good sense of respect among the workers, and I have never before seen such fine work come from the sweat of so many on one site.
It was certainly an honor to walk the production floor and to be schooled in the science that precedes the practical science of whiskey maturation. Kentucky Cooperage does give public tours, albeit not as thorough as I was privileged to enjoy. Even so, I highly recommend you take a look the next time you happen to be enjoying the Bourbon Trail.
* Editor’s Note: The handiwork of Lexington-based Big Ass Fans is becoming as ubiquitous in the Commonwealth as that of Vendome!