Barrels are made of Staves. Before I visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, if I had heard the word stave, my initial reaction would be “huh, what the heck is a stave? Misspelling of Stove?” Perhaps anyone who does woodworking (like Rob) might know what a stave is but I sure didn’t. By definition, it is “a vertical wooden post or plank in a building or other structure”. In this case, the “structures” are barrels, primarily those used by bourbon distilleries and wineries.
It was at a cooperage display at the Jim Beam Distillery that I first learned of “staves” and “coopers“. Barrels are made by coopers and anything a cooper makes, or the place he makes it, is know as cooperage. By definition a cooper refers to “a profession involved in the work of making utensils, casks, drums and barrels and other accessories, usually out of wood but may also include other materials.”
We were lucky to have an interesting chat with a retired cooper at the Jim Beam cooperage display. As he explained the barrel making process to us, he compared the very labor intensive task of the past to today’s machine driven process. He was familiar with both and told us that he once made a barrel totally by hand without any power tools taking him about 2 weeks to complete. Wow, that’s pretty time consuming, although he assured us that if he made another one it would go much faster. Before we left, he suggested that we take a trip to the Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, KY about 40 miles away to tour where the barrels used by Jim Beam (as well as several other distilleries) are made.
We took his advice and what a fascinating tour, best of all it was free! Unfortunately no photos were allowed so the majority of photos in this post were taken at the cooperage display at Jim Beam.
Upon arrival, we were taken into a small media room where our tour guide, Rebecca (think that was her name) told us about the history of the company which was founded in 1912 by A. W. Boswell and showed us a short video. She couldn’t provide any numbers or financial information but she did say that business is booming – so much so that the number of employees has increased over the past 10 years from about 100 to over 400 and that they are running two shifts even on weekends to keep up with the demand. Only 8 women work at the cooperage which she explained was due to the messy nature of the factory.
A few interesting barrel facts we learned:
- Independent Stave Company makes barrels for bourbon distilleries and wineries. Their location in MO primarily produces wine barrels and the KY location primarily produces bourbon barrels. Yes there is a difference!
- Today Independent Stave Company is the largest stave mill operation in the world with six highly efficient stave mills located in the US and in France.
- Where the barrel is made can be determined by the letters stamped into the rivet heads of the hoop. In many of the distilleries we saw a “KY” or “MO” on the rivets so we knew that the barrels were made at one of the Independent Stave Company locations here in the US. During the distillery tours we also saw “BB” (Brown Forman barrel company who makes barrels for Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels among others) and “LC” (Stitzel-Weller Bulleit Distillery).
- Barrels are made from highest quality American White Oak sourced from the American Midwest. At mills in Indiana and Missouri, the logs are carefully quartersawn into rough staves. Only quarter-sawing will produce the necessary characteristics to make leak proof barrels. See here for a photo of a quartersawn log.
- The Quartersawn Rough Staves are then allowed to season, or dry naturally in the open air, which removes undesirable flavors and helps formulate flavor characteristics such as spice, vanilla, butterscotch and other sweet notes. Each distiller can specify how long the rough staves are seasoned before they are shipped to the cooperage mills.
- The cooperage will mill the seasoned (aged) rough staves into finished staves. The rough stave is planed, jointed and beveled. Planing smooths the flat side of the wood, jointing in special stave making jointer machines provides the wide middle and tapered ends required and beveling puts the proper angle on each edge so when formed into a circle the edges sit flush to each other.
- Staves are of random and unequal widths and the cooper selects the sizes needed to make a barrel liquid tight. Each barrel requires between 29 to 36 staves with 32 being the ideal number. The number of staves is dependent on the specifications of the distillery (e.g. Makers Mark requires exactly 32). Each distillery also specifies the char level from 1 to 4 (usually a 3 or 4) of the barrel as well as other parameters.
- The barrels typically hold 53 gallons of spirits.
- It is the galvanized steel hoops that hold the barrels together – there are no nails or screws as these could contaminate the contents. The aforementioned rivets only fasten the hoops, they don’t attach to the barrel.
- The staves fit so precisely they are liquid tight, very similar to a wooden boat. If leaks are found they are repaired with – wait for it – cattail stalks! Yep, the barrels are partially disassembled and cattails are used to “caulk” any leaky barrel seams.
- In the bourbon industry, the barrels are only used once. Used barrels are mostly sold to Ireland and Scotland to be used for aging whiskey (or whisky). The used barrels can also be used for flavoring wine or beer.
- Not all distilleries purchase their barrels from ISC. There are several other cooperages, including Brown-Forman and Kelvin.
For the tour, we each picked up a head set, a wireless receiver and safety glasses and followed our guide to the first stop. At each stop there was a TV monitor that provided an introduction to the tasks being performed. At this stop one of the employees also showed us how a barrel was “raised” or initially formed. From a pile of various sized staves, the cooper chose the first stave – a 4″ wide one. Typically the staves are 2 to 3″ wide but it is important that this main stave be at least 4″ wide because this is where the bung hole will be drilled and it has to be wide and strong enough to withstand that.
The staves fit into a temporary head hoop at the bottom that defines the approximate finished barrel size. Once the first stave was in place, he continued adding more staves, alternating the widths. This ensures that the barrel is able to withstand high pressures – they do not want two of the same width staves next to each other as that would weaken the barrel. Once enough staves are fitted, he pulls the top section loosely together with a cable, then secures them with another temporary hoop.
The next step was the most interesting – the toasting and charring. Here the barrels are moved by conveyor belt through an area where the interior is heated so it carmelizes (toasted) then actually set on fire (charring). Depending on the char level specified by the distillery (from 1 to 4 – 4 is the most char) determines the amount of time the barrel will be in the flames – typically 55 seconds for a level 4 char. Never realized that it is the amount of toasting and charring that influences what flavors will eventually be imparted to the spirits aged in the barrels. Once the charring is done,the barrels are then sprayed with water to extinguish the fire.
Next the barrels are cooled which is an important step before the hoops are fitted. After that the grooves for the top and bottom lids are milled and installed and then a hooper machine installs the six hoops. Finally the bunghole is drilled and the barrel is filled with about 1-1/2 gallons of water and the barrels rotated to make sure the water touches all parts of the barrel. Pressure is added and the barrels are checked for leaks.
At each step of the way, the barrels are inspected. If there are any flaws or leaks, the damaged stave is marked and the barrel is moved to the cooperage repair area. This was quite a large room which was filled with barrels waiting to be repaired. Here one of the employees showed us on a real barrel how it was repaired. He removed the hoops on one end, replacing a damaged stave with a new one of similar size and shape. To “caulk” up any remaining gaps he stuffed pieces of cattail reeds between the staves. Once wet, the reeds would swell ensuring a tight seal. Finally the hoops were reinstalled and the barrel was sent back into production.
From there we were led back to our original starting point for more Q&A. Fascinating! For more info here is a detailed description of the barrel making process. This ISC video and this Brown Forman video will provide a more visual description.
After leaving the cooperage, we had lunch in Bardstown at the Talbott Tavern. Built in 1779, it has a very interesting history! According to their web site, “as a young boy Abraham Lincoln and his family stayed here, Gen. George Rogers Clark, Daniel Boone, and exiled French King Louis Phillipe and his entourage stayed here, even painting murals on the upstairs walls. There are noticeable bullet holes in the now faded paintings where legend says Jesse James shot them.”
After lunch we walked upstairs to view the faded paintings and the bullet holes from Jesse James. Unfortunately on March 7, 1998, the Tavern suffered a devastating fire. An early morning blaze destroyed the roof and most of the second floor. The main floor was smoke and water damaged as were the well-known murals which have not yet been restored. The Tavern underwent a long period of rebuilding and finally reopened its doors in November 1999.
More photos from the Tavern…