From Stave To Barrel

The Making Of Barrels


By Federal Law bourbon must be at least 51% corn with barley plus wheat and/or rye. Bourbon must be made in the United States of America. No color or other flavor can be added. The white dog cannot be barreled any higher than 120 proof. And bourbon must be age for at least 2 years in new oak barrels.

While each and every bourbon distillery has their own unique way of blending their mash, they all must use a brand new oak barrel to age the heavenly liquid. Considering how much bourbon is produced each year that is a lot of new barrels.

This lead us to wondered who makes the barrels and just how are they made.

So by asking the right person the right question we were off to Lebanon, Kentucky to the Kentucky Cooperage Company to see and learn about barrel making.

Barrels used for the distilling of alcohol are about 35" tall, 21" in diameter at the ends and about 24" in diameter in the middle and hold 53 gallons. For bourbon they are used just once. For other products they are used several times.



We discovered that barrel making is an art and not one that is learned over night. The process starts deep in the woods where select oak trees are cut. The wood is then quarter sawn which results in boards with straight striped grain lines that are resistant to wrapping and provides greater stability
      quater sawn
     wood pile    
The wood is then cut to length and stacked and left outside for months to dry. The length of drying time is set by the distiller for each one has their own formula's for their barrels.
barrel making

Once the boards have dried their sides are shaped in a planer. To start making a barrel the skilled cooper aligns approximately 33 staves to form the barrel. Temporary rings are used to hold the staves together.

The next step in the process puts the barrels through a steamer which softens the wood. The bands are tightened around the softened wood causing the barrels to alter it's shape.

charring charring

Once the barrels have taken their shape they are put through a series of machines which align the ends, smooth the barrels outside and tighten the staves.

The barrels are now ready to be charred. Charring is the process in which the inside of each barrel is burned for about 45 seconds. Each distiller will specify the amount of charring they want for their barrels.

When the charring is complete the barrels are crozed, which is the process of cutting a groove inside of each end of the barrel for the heads.

The heads are fitted to each end and the temporary rings are replaced with permanent ones. One gallon of water is added into each barrel which is soaked into the staves causing them to tighten by swelling.

new barrel

Because the barrels staves are self supporting, they are made just a few days before they are filled at the distillery.

Kentucky Cooperage has 11 major customers and makes 2,000 barrels a day.

Stop by and watch the process. It is hot, loud and very informative.

Throughout a barrel's life it distills and refines many products, bourbon, whiskey, rum, wine even Tabasco Sauce. But like all things, it finally has reached the end of it's life cycle. What then happens to it?

One place that has found ways to keep old barrels from the trash heap is the Blackwater Barrel Company. Go see some of the many things the talented craftsmen do with old oak barrels.

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