Bluegrass Cooperage in Louisville makes whiskey and wine barrels on a scale that must be seen to be appreciated.
On any given year this facility, owned by Brown Forman Distillers, will produce between four and five hundred thousand barrels, not only for its own whiskies and wines but for many other distillers and vintners as well.
Using American white oak the lumber arrives in Louisville from mills as far away as Minnesota where it has been pre-cut to the sizes needed for the butts and staves of the barrel. First step is to dry the green wood both outdoors and in kilns, six months for whiskey barrels, two years for wine barrels.
Every step in the making of the barrel is done here, much by automated machines but with skilled workers as well. For selecting the staves and matching them for size requires much skill and training and is done in this plant with incredible speed.
Both wine and whiskey barrels require toasting, that is the inside of the barrel is touched by fire. In the case of the whiskey barrels charring is also required where for moments the inside of the barrel is actually aflame. The charring caramelizes the sugar in the white oak giving the aging whiskey aroma, taste and color.
If you wish to produce Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, by law, the spirits must be stored in new white oak charred barrels for at least three years.
For wine barrels there is toasting but no charring. Computers determine how much flame is needed for toasting and this is often determined by the winemaker.
At this writing much of the production of wine barrels is being transferred to Fetzer's new barrel plant in Mendocino county. Fetzer, also owned by Brown Forman, is the only wine barrel production facility in California and is already making barrels, not only for its own Fetzer and Jekel wines but for many other vintners as well.
Bluegrass Cooperage in Louisville is one of only a handful of barrel cooperages left in Kentucky. Its modern production techniques have moved a long way from when all the steps in making a barrel were done by hand.
But what is most important is the quality of the end product. Whiskey barrels will enjoy a long and productive life, first aging bourbon and Tennessee whiskies for years until maturity and then being recycled for the storing and aging of other spirits including rum, scotch, brandy and tequila.
The demand for American white oak used whiskey barrels ranges from Europe, Canada, Mexico, South American and the Middle East and potential customers for the barrels of Bluegrass Cooperage are often visitors to the Louisville plant.
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