Oak Barrels (and Bourbon): An Export SuccessWood barrel makers, and especially white oak barrels, are thriving. Driven by the growing popularity of craft brewing of beers, ciders and hard spirits, orders for the barrels are rising from small distilleries, hobbyists, and from wine and liquor firms around the globe.

This benefits all U.S. coopersmiths, as barrel makers are formally known. And American-made  barrels are prized worldwide.

As is U.S. bourbon, for which the oak barrel forms a critical part of the ingredients and the process. It is among the few comestibles formally defined by an Act of Congress, which established in 1964 that "bourbon whiskey is a distinctive product of the United States." By law bourbon made for U.S. consumption must be aged in new charred oak barrels.

Brown-Forman Cooperage, near Louisville, while famous for Jack Daniel's whiskey, is also is the one of the world's largest producers of whiskey and bourbon barrels. Brown-Forman says it is the only major distiller in the world that owns and manufactures its own barrels. Its cooperage's white oak barrels hold maturing inventories of Jack Daniel's, Early Times, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve.

Editor Karen Koenig visited Kentucky Cooperage, a division of Independent Stave Co., during the WCMA 2011 Plant Tours. Kentucky Cooperage manufactures barrels for bourbon and other spirits. Its barrels for bourbon are made from white oak obtained from forests around the Missouri area.

Oak Barrels (and Bourbon): An Export SuccessAnother major barrel source nearby is Kentucky Barrels. Its barrels are made from American grown white oak, and are used in production of whiskey and fine wines. Kentucky Barrels' website has an authoritative description of barrel construction, and its importance to the bourbon fermentation process.

A Kentucky Bourbon barrel measure 53 gallons, notes the site. "Trees selected for barrel staves must be straight and free of knots. Many of the chosen trees are more than 100 years old and cut during autumn or winter when the sap is low. They are seasoned by drying naturally in the open air from eighteen months to two years."

After the Bourbon is bottled, barrels are re-used, exported to winemakers and spirit distillers around the world. Brown-Forman notes in sustainability reports that it finds use for 98 percent of its barrel making woodwaste, generating $100,000 in annual revenue. 

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