Kelvin Cooperage is a growing business making barrels for many distilleries and wineries as well as dealing in used cooperage to Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere. In fact it was while I was talking with Caleb Kilburn at Peerless that he mentioned they still use wood fires to toast and char their barrels. That intrigued me and when talking with Susan Reigler I mentioned this fact and that I have never visited there. Neither had Susan and she just met a a young woman that works there, so we decided that Susan would contact her acquaintance, Britney Wimsatt, and set up a tour.
Rosemary and I were to meet Susan at the Cooperage. Susan arrived first and we were taken to a meeting room where Susan, Britney and Paul McLaughlin were waiting. After quick introductions we sat down for some background history of the company. There had been a cooperage on the site since the 1940s – Universal Containers, but Kelvin had only been there since the 1990s. Universal Containers shipped used cooperage overseas and that is what Kelvin originally started doing in the industry. Paul told us that they were refurbishing barrels in Scotland before coming to Kentucky but decided that it would be better to go to the source of used barrels – Kentucky. That way they could refurbish the barrels here and not have the cost of sending additional wood overseas. They grew into making wine barrels and then as the artisan distillery movement grew, making whiskey barrels. They are now making barrels for about 80 different distilleries. These barrels were for a long time small 25 gallon barrels, but now it is mostly full sized 53 gallon barrels.
We started our tour through the cooperage by looking at aging wood. They get their oak from three main mills and have had a relationship with these mills for years. This was handy in recent years when oak was in short supply because of their relationship with these three mills they were able to anticipate the problems and keep a steady supply to the cooperage. The wood is air dried for 24 months for wine barrels and 6 months for Bourbon barrels that then are kiln dried. Customers can change these times if they wish but this is what they do for their standard barrels. The wood is separated by length, the shorter wood for the heads and longer for the staves.
We then walked through the stages of preparing the wood staves – creating the joints for the heads and the curves and angles needed for the staves. They have a new machine that drills the dowel holes and places the rods in the holes. In the past they had drill presses that did this job and took much longer. The heads are assembled and sent to a saw that first cuts the diameter cut and then cuts the angles around the diameter so it will fit in the croze, or groove in the staves that holds the head in place. The barrels are assembled with varying sized staves being placed to ensure strength. Too many of one size can lead to problems like broken staves and leaks.
Once the barrel is raised it is sent to the first heat source. The barrel is dampened with water and then placed over a wood fired burner to be heated. This heating adds very little toast and is done simply to bend the staves to create the barrels. Once the new hoops are on the barrel, it is ready for its second firing. Placed over another wood fired burner it is allowed to toast for as much as twenty minutes before it is then charred. There are no gas jets and timers at Kelvin. The char level is created only by the experience of the cooper watching and smelling the barrel. When that skilled craftsman sees the flame in a certain way and smells a quality of the smoke, he knows it is done and sprays it with a water hose to stop the flame, then pulls the barrel from the heater.
The barrel is then sent to a series of saws where the croze is cut and the bunghole drilled. The heads are charred on another wood fired “stove” that looks like a larger version of the one in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a child. Four heads are charred at a time and another skilled craftsman is there watch, smelling to see that they are not on there too long and the joints weakened. The heads are fitted to the barrels and then they are tested with some water and air pressure for leaks. Any leaks detected are plugged and the barrel sent on to the final stages. The last two hoops are added, the bunghole is “charred” with a hot iron that insures the angle is correct for the bung while adding a light char to the hole. The heads are then laser stamped with the Kelvin logo and sometimes with a distillery trademark and shipped to the customer.
We also saw the used cooperage side of the business. Kelvin ships barrels to many customers around the world. Barrels are collected at the distilleries when they are dumped. The distilleries are getting a decent price for these empty barrels as they are in demand not only for whiskey production, but also tequila, rum, wine and beer. A certain number of barrels are judged to be capable for sending directly to the new customers while others are separated for re-coopering. Some barrels are cannibalized for their staves as others have leaking or broken staves replaced. These barrels are constantly moving in and out of the cooperage with about eight trucks and shipping containers being sent out every day, filled with used barrels.
Kelvin Cooperage is not the most modern cooperage in the world. They could do things that speed up production, but they don’t. They feel their wood fired barrels give the whiskey or wine a better flavor and they have actually increased the labor pool to meet their demand while others have automated production. They don’t offer public tours and I often felt like we were in the way of the people working, but they all seemed happy and eager to show us what they were doing. There is a certain atmosphere of pride in their work that I felt radiated throughout the building. The quality of their barrels reflects this pride. If you ever get a chance to visit there, do so.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller