Forty years ago, most large companies that made whiskey also made barrels in which to age it. Today, only Brown-Forman does.
The Brown-Forman Cooperage is on the south side of Louisville, just west of the airport. From the outside it looks like any other factory, except for the millions of rough cut staves neatly stacked in the yard outside.
At any given time, the cooperage's wood inventory alone is valued at about $30 million.
Brown-Forman Cooperage makes barrels for Brown-Forman brands exclusively, including Jack Daniel's, Early Times, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Canadian Mist, and Herradura. The barrels are made of white oak and held together with steel hoops. No adhesives or fasteners of any kind are used.
All of a whiskey's color and about half of its flavor comes from the barrel.
That wood stacked outside isn't just stored there. It is drying naturally, an important step in the process of making flavor compounds in the wood available for extraction by the aging spirit. It typically stays there, fully exposed to the elements, for six month to two years. Some of it will be finished in a warehouse-size kiln.
The cooperage itself is hot, crowded and noisy. Although there are a lot of machines, there are lots of people too. One of the most highly-skilled jobs is barrel raising. Barrel raisers use their judgment to select an assortment of staves of varying widths which, properly aligned and pulled together, will form the body of the barrel. Their skill is essential to giving the barrel its most important characteristic, water-tightness.
In one of the final steps, the barrels are burned on the inside. This creates a layer of charcoal that filters the spirit and also carmelizes some of the wood sugars.
Brown-Forman Cooperage is open for tours. Contact Mint Julep Tours at (502) 583-1433 to make arrangements.