The scent of charred and fresh lumber overwhelms someone the moment they walk into Speyside Bourbon Cooperage. But after the barrel supplier produced its millionth barrel, it is no surprise that some of its veteran workers have become nose-blind.
One Million Barrels and One Million More
For a business with international origins that is headquartered in Jackson, Speyside knows its roots.
The company originated in Scotland in 1947 but expanded to include both the Ohio cooperage and another in Kentucky, alongside the two in Scotland. Speyside chose Southeast Ohio because a furniture company vacated its plant, causing 300 to 400 jobs to leave Jackson.
Alberto Ramirez, the operations manager for Speyside, began working with wineries in Northern California, which is when his work with barrels began. When the building opened up, Speyside was able to hit the ground running because some of the basic infrastructures were already in place from the furniture company, he says.
Speyside ships internationally, as proven by a map in the plant which has markers in Europe, as well as North, Central and South America. Despite that, they also recognize that their Jackson plant has a significant local impact.
“At this point, we’re the third-largest employer in the county, so I’m sure that we have impacted the community,” Ramirez says.
With their production staff alone, the company employs about 175 people along with administrative and maintenance staff.
Ramirez says that while the barreling industry is growing as interest in bourbon grows, they are filling a large production gap. More and more distilleries are asking for white oak barrels.
The current production stands around 1,500 barrels a day, compared to their original 400 a day, but Kincaid wants to see Speyside reach a new goal of 50 million barrels now that they have surpassed one million.
“Our barrel is second to none in my eyes, and if we can’t make the best barrel, then why be in the market?” Kincaid says.
The Process: From Seed to Stave
The process that goes into barreling bourbon starts sooner than some realize, says Rob Kincaid, the production and reliability manager for Speyside, which is based in Athens. The process begins as soon as the seed is planted.
Once Speyside receives the wood from one of their five stave mills, they unload it, assign it and begin a two-part drying process, using a pre-dry and a 130-degree kiln room.
After drying, the staves (quarter-sawn planks of white oak) are made into the barrel’s head (the lid), or processed and shaped into the body.
The barrels are sent through a series of steam tunnels and preheat machines to make them pliable for shaping. Next, hoops shape the barrels before the most important step in the cooperage’s process: the char.
“The char is the heart of the cooperage, giving 100 percent of the color so [the liquor] goes in like water and comes out like nice, dark bourbon,” Kincaid says.
After the barrels are fired, the retaining rings are removed and the barrel heads are inserted before the barrel is left to cool and relax. Every barrel is tested to see if the staves, hoops and heads are in their proper places before they are drilled, and water added to inspect for leaks. If problems are found, the barrels are fixed and put back on the line.
“We’re shipping day-to-day about five to six loads,” Kincaid says. “A typical load, we’re looking at 288 barrels in a trailer, and for the most part, 90 to 95 percent are within the Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee region.”
One million barrels was the goal for Kincaid, but he is already looking ahead. He wants to reach the next million.