Several micro-brewers make bourbon barrel stout or employ used bourbon barrels in other ways. Bourbon Barrel Foods, in Louisville, ages soy sauce and other products in them. A cigar company in Kentucky ages its tobacco in them.
Let's say you need used bourbon barrels for something, how can you get them?
The obvious place to go is the big bourbon distilleries. They empty hundreds of barrels daily, for which they have no further use. They just want them gone.
But because they need to get rid of so many, they can't really deal with somebody who just needs one, or a dozen, or even a hundred of them. They need to deal with somebody who will take all of them.
The companies that make new barrels are called cooperages but so are the companies that deal in used barrels. The two main makers of new barrels are Brown-Forman Cooperage and Independent Stave Company (ISC). ISC does not deal in used barrels, but Brown-Forman does.
For more about the ways used barrels are re-used, go here.
There are other, much smaller companies in Kentucky that also call themselves cooperages. They may make a few new barrels, or resell new barrels acquired from ISC, but mostly they deal in used barrels that they buy in large quantities from the distilleries.
One such company is Kelvin Cooperage, They’re located on the far south side of Louisville. Kentucky Barrels and Bardstown Bourbon Barrels are two similar companies.
There used to be many of these little companies that bought used barrels from the distilleries, broke them down, and sold them to Scotland and elsewhere. Or they cut them up and sold them as planters. There don't seem to be as many of them as there used to be.
What used barrels are best? It depends on what you want the barrel to do for you. A lot of breweries use Pappy Van Winkle barrels because that’s such a highly-regarded bourbon, but it’s also very old – 15 to 23 years. Whiskey takes things out of the wood, it doesn’t leave much behind.
If you want wood extractives, then you want barrels used for very young bourbon. Several distilleries (Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill) sell a lot of 2-year-old bourbon to Australia, for use in bourbon-and-cola and bourbon-and-ginger-ale pre-mixes, which are very popular there. Those barrels still have lots of the original sugars, tannins and other substances in them.
If, on the other hand, you want barrels whose extractives have mostly been depleted, then you want barrels from very well-aged bourbons, like Pappy, Elijah Craig 18, or the BT Antiques.
Happily, since all used barrels have the name of the distillery and when they were filled written on the barrel head, you always know what you’re getting with used barrels.
Non-distiller producers (NDPs) typically receive the whiskey they buy in barrels, which they dump at their facility. Just like a distillery, an NDP has no further use for those barrels. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) and Bardstown Barrel Selections are two such companies. Both are in Bardstown.
Another source is micro-distilleries. They tend to use small barrels – 5, 10, 15, and 30 gallon – rather than the 53 gallon barrels the big guys all use. There are micro-distilleries all over the country now. Only a few make bourbon or rye whiskey, but those that do usually need to dispose of used barrels. They don’t have long-term relationships established with resellers, so they sell catch as catch can. They also tend to make young whiskey, so their used barrels still have lots of goodies left in them.
Some micro-distilleries sell their used barrels in their gift shop.
The prices for used barrels fluctuate due to changing demand. Demand has been good lately. To the distilleries, a used 53 gallon barrel brings about $85. You can expect to pay a lot more unless you're buying thousands of them.
A couple of decades ago, when demand was low, distilleries were giving used barrels away, even one at a time, to anyone who showed up with a truck. Not any more.