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    By Jenny Kiefer
    Photos by Chris Witkze

    “I got to Louisville on a Saturday,” Charlie Harden says. “Got an interview with Brown-Forman on Monday, and started working at the cooperage the next day. I’ve been at the cooperage ever since.” Hardin is now the cooperage’s most senior worker, sometimes logging 80 hours a week, waking up at 3 a.m. each morning.  At his current station — a large jointer — in what seems to be white chalk, he’s written: 47 yrs+ Goal 50 yrs. To the right, he’s taped up a Brown-Forman ad in which he stands in front of finished barrels.

    Image: Charlie Hardin is the most veteran employee of the cooperage.
    His goal is to reach 50 years.
    Image: Hardin mans the Slicker Wheel, gently kissing staves to a large blade.

    Forty-seven years ago, 19-year-old Harden worked in the shook department, reversing the barrel raising, pulling off the metal rings and pulling apart the staves, the pieces to be shipped abroad. “We were given a used barrel to do something with, so some of the guys turned it over to drain any leftover whiskey out of it,” Harden says. “A little came out and it was Jack Daniel’s. It was the best whiskey I ever had.”

     

    “The life of a barrel starts in the woods,” says Bob Russell, manager of mills and wood procurement. “When we’re buying a white oak log, we’re buying the very first ingredient.” Making a barrel takes up nearly 60 percent of the cost of producing bourbon, and just as much of a bourbon’s flavor and color is extracted from the wood — by law, bourbon can only be aged in new, American white oak barrels. “We’re grading against knots — where a limb has broken off the tree,” Russell says. “We’re grading against natural defects. Streaks. Cracks. Rot. Fire.” A seasoned forester by trade, he can determine the characteristic and quality of a log by looking at its “butt” — the bottom 10 or 12 feet of a tree, the exposed slice on either end.


    Image: A barrel raiser selects still-straight staves to fit together in a temporary ring, before the oak is steamed.

    Brown-Forman sources its 60- or 70-year-old oak — Russell says a landowner may only harvest trees twice in their lifetime — from mills across the Midwest, where, like the baby bear’s belongings to Goldilocks, the conditions are just right. The trees don’t shoot up too fast or grow too slowly, stunted by months of snow. In this region — from Southern Michigan, through Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, all the way down to Birmingham — trees produce eight to 12 rings per inch in a cross section, just the right amount to allow the wood to bend, and not snap, for a bulging barrel. “We don’t like to go very far south,” Russell says. Humidity and year-round heat create faster growing conditions, producing more knots, more rot, more defects. “I draw a line at I-20 (which runs through Dallas and Atlanta). Don’t want to get below that.” 

     

    “I’m trying to keep a whole year of wood technology in about five minutes,” Russell says after I ask why logs are quarter-sawn to create staves. This involves a complicated explanation, starting far before any cuts are made. He moves to a whiteboard and draws diagrams with an orange marker: a squiggly circle (the outer bark) and straighter-lined circles inside (the growth rings, one per year).

    Then he zooms in. “We’re going to look at one ring,” he says. Active growth begins in February, before the first pricklings of blossoms and leaves. Within one yearly growth ring, there’s earlywood and latewood; he draws thick lines and thin lines. “It’s growing really fast in the spring and it’s adding these bigger rings until about May.”latewood; he draws thick lines and thin lines. “It’s growing really fast in the spring and it’s adding these bigger rings until about May.”

    To the side he magnifies even further: a sap line. “If you’ve seen the inside cross-section of oak, you’ve got the white line and that’s sap,” he says, drawing a series of close pores. “Sap leaks.”


    Image: Stacks of seasoned wood fill the cooperage's wearhouse. This supply is overturned in under a week.

    The drying process removes the sap but keeps its membrane: a tiny, natural tube running vertically through a log that keeps bourbon from leaking. “That’s why white oak is so important to barrel-making,” Russell says. To cut oak for barrels, mills slice the log in half twice, until they’ve got four long pie slices, shaving off the flat slides until they’re left with only a small scrap piece, a tiny triangle of bark. 

    “We basically cut the log inside out,” Russell says. This process takes advantage of the inside dimensions, the special characteristics of the wood — the medullary rays, the growth rings, the sap membranes — to trap the bourbon. If you look at a used stave, a bowed slice of a barrel, the inside will be black and flaking. Along the inside edge, there will be a reddish, curving stain — the soak line, proof of the seal. “It only goes about halfway through a barrel,” Russell says. “(It’s) a natural barrier for whiskey to move in and out.”

    After slicing into heading or stave pieces, there’s more waiting: The wood needs to season, to dry out. Fresh wood is wet wood, no good for raising barrels. Dried too fast and the pieces will break, too brittle to bend. In fact, the wood needs to dry so slowly that sprinklers add more water to the wood. “If it lays out in the sun in the summertime without anything to protect it, it’s going to be like your skin,” Russell says. “Burnt and crackled.”

     

    The Brown-Forman Cooperage, off Crittenden Drive, is a maze of conveyor belts. Heading boards tower in 15- or 20-foot stacks in an expansive warehouse. Michael Nelson, director of the Brown-Forman Cooperage, says they turn over this massive supply weekly — about 2,500 barrels are raised daily. Tucked behind the shipping airfields, the cooperage was originally a furniture manufacturer, the building erected in 1920. Later, as a munitions plant, the Wood Mosaics Co. produced more than a million walnut gun stocks for war efforts in World War II before being converted to Bluegrass Cooperage in 1945. The name was changed to Brown-Forman Cooperage in 2009.


    Image: Barrels line up at the oldest fill station in the oldest building on Brown-Forman's campus.

    In the din of the machinery — even with earplugs, the grinding and motors sound piercing — Nelson leads me through the cooperage, which employs about 300 people. Workers wear hard plastic goggles, leather boots and gloves, pressing stave boards against giant jointers with circular, upright blades as large as monster truck tires. It’s chilly inside — even the constantly revolving motors can’t heat the place. Someone taps a marker to the bottom of finished staves. “That’s our high-tech inventory system. Fully automated, very computer driven,” Nelson jokes. “He’s counting.”

    When I visit in early December, Hardin is tapering thin staves at a special jointer called a slicker wheel, which towers overhead, at least eight feet tall. His joint work requires precision: The sides of the staves must be tapered to achieve a round, leak-proof barrel, but thinner staves only need a slight touch. If Charlie removes too much, he’ll have a pointed piece. He just needs to kiss them to the angled blade, barely creating sawdust. 

     

    Barrel raisers pluck pieces from carts stacked high with straight, jointed staves, thin and thick, ensuring a tight barrel. They fit the staves into a temporary steel ring, round like a hula-hoop. The raised barrel resembles a bloomed flower, the still-straight staves blossoming out and away. A metal lasso slips around and pulls the petals together, just briefly. “We always use an odd number,” Nelson says. “You don’t want to get to the end and have two (staves) to kind of work in together.”

    To bend the staves permanently, barrels take a steam bath to relax the wood, a sauna injecting the dry and brittle oak with moisture. Another temporary metal ring is placed on top to secure the shape, now a bloated belly. At a separate station, long coils of metal roll through a cutting machine, curled into circles, each slightly wider than the last, two distinctive B-stamped rivets to join them. Later, a 10-armed machine, like a spider with extra legs, pushes six rings into place over an already-rounded barrel — the first three secured, a mechanic flip, then the last three.

    The heads form at the “green machine.” Gloved hands poke twin vampire-bite holes for dowel pegs into the sides of short, stout planks. There’s no carpenter’s glue in the barrel-raising process: just squeezing before spinning — horizontally like a record — a router shaving off the corners, beveling the edges to fit into the triangular “crow’s joint” in the staves, slightly below the edges.

    The heads fit inside cast-iron rings connected in a chain, rotating in an elongated oval like a tank wheel. The chain pulls the heads through heat, like toast machines at a hotel breakfast, to char the inside. The heated iron runs upside-down through a water bath, steam rising from the floor, to save them from cracking. The charred heads return to their conveyor, ready to be fit into the still-open barrels.

     

    When barrels finally look like barrels, they go back on the conveyor belt, through the Buffalo machine — named after the city — which evens the joints, pushes everything together. Three 100-pound barrels, already toasted, roll into the charring station. Toasting requires indirect heat, which lightly caramelizes the oak. But the charring station is the big show: the insides are fully ablaze. Large flames leap up, blackening the insides. The age-old argument behind properly roasted marshmallows. Metal claws grab the barrels like cartoon hooks pulling a poor performer offstage, and then run them underneath a shower to douse the flames.


    Image: Steam rises from recently charred and extinguished barrels.

    The char imparts the wood’s sugars to the bourbon, but legend — more than likely just that — says that charring bourbon barrels was an accident: fish or pickle barrels were charred and scraped to remove any residue before being reused, sometimes for whiskey. When the whiskey in the used barrels traveled, mingling with the barrel while floating down the Mississippi or Ohio, the taste was preferred to a younger whiskey in a non-charred barrel. We’ll have to take this with a grain of oak.

     

    Then the final steps: affixing the second head, flexing those staves just enough to wedge it in. Centering the thickest stave underneath a lasered X to cut the bung hole, an oversized drill press carving down into the belly.

    Then the test: A gallon of water — just 1/50th of the barrel’s capacity — pours inside, pressurized. “It’s like if you’ve ever had a leak in a tire and you spray soapy water on it,” Nelson says. In the warehouse, the bourbon pressurizes the barrel, constricts and contracts. “We try to replicate that — if it’s driving air and water out, we make the assumption that it’ll drive out the bourbon.” 

    If it bubbles, the coopers, a group of senior employees, will mend it. A row of four cubicle-esque work spaces are equipped with electric drills and rubber mallets. If there’s a slight gap between the staves, the coopers hammer in a wedge. If there’s a hole, they shove in a sharp-tipped spike, drilling the hole to size if needed. A reed pushes into an oozing crow’s joint. 

    “We’re pushing 600,000 (barrels) a year,” Nelson says. “It’s a lot. A lot of work.” 

     

    “This is the oldest building on campus,” says Ronnie Brooks, warehouse manager of the Brown-Forman Distillery in Shively. He’s talking about the filling station, the cistern room. “Literally ready to fall down.” 

    Inside, the small room houses another conveyor belt, snaking around the room in a U-shape, no gaps from wall to wall. In the middle sit more barrels: some too large for their ricks, which hold smaller, 52-gallon barrels; some in need of repair, too many leaks for a quick fix. Trucks from the cooperage, docked at a large, square mouth in the wall, carry nearly 200 barrels per trailer. “We usually make about three trips a day on average,” Brooks says, “bringing barrels back and forth.”

    Workers pull the new, still-empty barrels from the truck and place them sideways on the conveyor. The filling station hosts three slots, curved metal barrel holsters with dangling nozzles, an orange, coiled telephone wire rolling up to metal tubes that lead to the four tanks. The filling station is cramped, just a small space for the filler to align the barrels in the rung, cozy, bung hole up, dumping distillate inside. What comes out of the tank is clear. “You’ve heard the terminology white dog?” Brooks asks. “That’s basically what that is.”


    Image: A cooper sands the sides of a barrel in need of repair.

    When they are filled, real manual labor comes in. A poplar bung fits into the precise hole in the middle of the stave. The worker smacks it into place with a rubber mallet, arm swinging in huge parabolas.

    The barrels continue around the U, rolling through the stamping machine, a square metal box that rises over the conveyor. It stamps both sides of the head with the date and a Brown-Forman logo. On the way out, the barrel pushes a small metal tab, a turnstile-like counter. According to the counter, when I visit around 1:30, nearly 450 barrels have been filled, just 100 under the daily goal, 535. “You see that it’s leaking a little bit?” Brooks says, showing me a newly stamped barrel, wet from seepage, the new ink smudging. “That will seal up probably before it gets to the warehouse.” 

    The repairman waits inside the U. He’s got his hands crossed, watching the barrels roll across another length of rolling metal bars, heading to the second wide mouth on the right, to be loaded onto another truck. “He may sit down here all day,” Brooks says. “He might not do any (repairs).” 

    He’ll only need to repair a barrel if it’s peeing — exactly what it sounds like. A solid stream pouring from the barrel, as if it’s relieving itself, caused by wormholes — bugs in the wood — or loose staves. When a barrel pees, it’s pulled off the line with a hydraulic lift, into a stirrup just inside the conveyor belt. Wedges fit into leaks, usually between staves or heading pieces — a peg hammered into wormholes. “That wedge causes the wood to tighten up,” Brooks says. “If a barrel is so bad that we can’t make a repair, we’ve got this pump to refill a new barrel.” 

    The filled barrels are rolled sideways onto a second truck, sliding into rails. A curved metal triangle holds them in place as they roll less than a mile, the truck door wide open, to the warehouse on the same campus. 

     

    It’s pure whiskey-air in the warehouse. When the elevator door opens, fumes smack me in the face, thick and sweet, as if I’ve got an open bottle directly under my nose. I’m not sure how employees make it through the day maintaining a level head.

    Barrel!” is the oft-heard cry in the warehouse. It’s entirely coordination: between the truck driver, who loads barrels into a barrel escalator — a ski lift for bourbon — large hooks that capture the barrels and deliver them to the correct floor; between the men guiding the barrel along rails, like train tracks, to the mouth of the ricks; between the ones inside the ricks, lining them up. 

    “Five hundred pounds,” Brooks says to an overall-clad worker, paused between rolling barrels. “It doesn’t take much to smash a finger. Does it, Jay?”

    “No, it does not,” Jay responds.


    Image: Barrels roll into a truck, driven across campus to the warehouse.

    This campus only uses ricks — large metal structures housing barrels on their sides, always 31 barrels per rick, 450,000 barrels in all five warehouses combined. The original warehouse is just through an oversized doorway: The ricks here are three-high, the walls brick, the lighting dim, like a cavern. The bottom rows are lower than the floor, a groove carved into the concrete. Some of the barrels are weathered — the rings rusty, the staves beaten and worn — even though these were only filled in 2014. “But here’s the thing,” Brooks says. “You see the white paint on it? That’s a whiskey barrel.”

    In the newest part of the warehouse, workers load barrels into the bottom row of a six-high rick. In between each rick is a thin sliver of space — barely enough room for someone to slip through to guide the barrels into place. “These guys rotate their positions throughout the day,” Brooks says. “You don’t (want) two guys stuck inside the ricks all day long. That’s probably the worst part of the job.” 

     

    “The most important and most wonderful part and the least maintenance of the process is the damn barrel,” says Jackie Zykan, master bourbon specialist for Old Forester. She’s brought a long box with her, about 30 small samples of bourbon, a cold glass bottle of clear distillate which smells like artificial popcorn butter. She says once the barrels are warehoused, they don’t move: “I’ve yet to find anyone out there that moves their barrels.”


    Image: A repairman slides a reed into a leaking barrel, fresh from the fill station.

    Zykan traces the red line along the side of the curved oak stave. As the barrel sits, it’s developing flavor from moving in and out of the oak and the char, absorbing the caramelization and sugars in the wood, pulling from what’s called the red layer. “Pulling from that red layer of slightly toasted sugars, the whiskey in the barrel itself is red,” she says. All of a bourbon’s color — and over half of the flavor — comes from the wood. “Everyone thinks bourbon is brown, but it’s not until the air hits it.” Takeaway: If you distilled bourbon in space, it’d be red.

    The day it’s filled, nearly 10 percent of the distillate is sucked into the oak. “People go, ‘Oh, you lost a lot of whiskey,’” says Zykan. “We want that, because you want the wood to get wet.” 

    All of the color is obtained within the first year of aging. She draws a graph. “If you look at color and time, and this is six months, a year,” she says, “you see the color go pshhew to year one. Then it starts teetering off.” The darker the bourbon, the more interaction it’s had with the barrel, but this is straight from the barrel, before filtering. You won’t find the best bottle of bourbon by comparing the variations in amber between bottles on the shelf.

    For a good bourbon, you want the distillate to move in and out of the wood. Heat accomplishes this. “It’s kind of like a teabag,” Zykan says. “If you just let it sit there versus dunking it.” In the summer, Kentucky’s heat does this naturally, but barrels filled in September through the spring are heat-cycled: shut the windows and crank up the heat, a barrel sauna. A fiber-optic probe curls out of selected barrels. “You’re measuring the temperature inside the barrel — not the air,” she says. “So it feels like it’s 130 degrees and it’s just pure whiskey air.” 

    Kentucky isn’t a humid environment, according to the barrels, so they lose water vapor (called the angel’s share), not alcohol. “If you aged a barrel in a really humid environment, the water in the barrel isn’t fighting to leave, because there’s some of it outside,” Zykan says. “With bourbon, you’re losing water, which is concentrating the alcohol.” 

    Six months before the bourbon is ready, Zykan drills a hole into the head of a barrel, facing out into the tiny space between ricks. She tests for warehouse must, for flavor and development in the bourbon. In the ricks, Brooks points out a barrel head that’s been tested; there’s a round freckle of wood in the middle of the head — an oak peg. “It literally just shoots right out,” Zykan says. “Just catch it, plug the hole, taste it, spit on the floor.” 


    Image: Jackie Zykan tastes bourbon directly from the barrel, testing for flavor development, quality and color.

    After sitting for at least four years, the barrels roll backwards to the escalator, carried down and driven to the dump station. More conveyors here, these in a boot configuration, curling around three consecutive rights and then a left to lead back to where it began. The dumping station itself resembles the starting gate at Churchill Downs, a long row of bowed metal stirrups, housed in individual stalls. Each station has a pump to siphon out the bourbon. A few drills hang down on a coiled wire, attached to a rail to move side to side, down the line to drill away the bung. Broken poplar pieces litter the floor.

    “Everything runs through this, whether it’s whiskey or bourbon or anything,” Brooks says, pointing to the large, stainless-steel tank, connected to the dump stations by a tube that hugs the ceiling. Straight from the barrel, the bourbon is littered with oak, large chunks and fine particulates, filtered out by mesh screens. The oak pieces are spit out into a dumpster behind the building; never wasteful, the cooperage burns these remnants as fuel. 

    “The stuff that comes out of the second filter looks like mud,” Brooks says. 

     

    “I just hung up with South Africa today,” says Liz Braun, Brown-Forman’s used-barrel sales manager. “I was in Ireland last month and Scotland. I was just in Guyana.” Brown-Forman sells around half a million barrels annually — depending on how much bourbon they bottle — accounting for nearly half the used-barrel sales worldwide. Used barrels might be used up to five times and age everything: beer, wine, scotch, other whiskeys — I’ve even seen “bourbon-barrel-aged mustard” at Kroger. 

    After being dumped, the emptied barrels are set in the yard, waiting to be put onto trucks. The campus in Shively may reuse them to make Early Times whiskey, or they may be sent to the used-barrel cooperage in Lynchberg, Tennessee, in a circus wagon.


    Image: Barrels line up in their stalls at the dump station, the bourbon siphoned and filtered.

    In rural Scotland, Braun visits distilleries that have been aging scotch in Brown-Forman barrels for 50 years, the B still clearly stamped on the rivets. “I’m talking to a 75-year-old man who we’ve been working with for 20 or 25 years, but he was never distilling his own (whiskey),” Braun says. She’s in Ireland, at Teeling Whiskey, a new brand started by the man’s two sons, currently the only distillery in Dublin. “He’s showing me this bottle of 30-year-old (whiskey) that his boys just packaged (using) Brown-Forman barrels. 

    “When you strip down to the process of raising that barrel, I can go back to my office and show you a manual from 1930,” Braun says. “Barrels have been around for over 2,000 years. It hasn’t changed dramatically from that.”

    This originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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