Smith had long known that working with wood made him truly happy. “Really when I was 18, even in college, it was a stress reliever,” Smith says of the pastime. “Leave the campus, go out to dad’s woodshop for a couple hours on a Thursday, and the stress was gone.” He confided his feelings of discontent in his corporate workplace to a friend, and that person sent him a link to a piece from the Wall Street Journal detailing a shortage of whiskey barrels. At that moment, like the seed of a great oak tree, the idea began to take root. Smith decided to make a barrel. To do so, he needed wood. He contacted a relative who worked for a company that made custom oak trims. “I called them up and said, ‘Hey I need quarter sawn white oak, and I need a bunk of it.’ I didn’t have any idea about seasoned wood, I didn’t know about how it’s dried. I didn’t know about the science behind it. I just knew I needed white oak.” While problems surrounding the right wood and treatment for the taste and character of American whiskey would later arise, the more immediate issue was that Smith did not actually know how to put the thing together. Instead of fretting too hard over the dilemma, he decided to do a bit of basic math. “If I’ve got 30 staves in a barrel, 360 degrees divided by 30 is 12, two angles on each stave, it’s six degrees,” Smith decided. Simple enough — or so he thought. “My first barrel was straight-walled. And then I was like, well, crap. I screwed this up because it needs to have a taper.” At a loss for instruction, Smith turned to the existing community to get a bit of assistance. He started by taking tours of different cooperages, but soon found they were insufficient in telling him what he needed to know. “They were public tours — they showed how a barrel was built, but I needed the intricacies of it,” Smith elaborates. Finally he caught a break: a cooper allowed him to come in and watch while they constructed an entire barrel. After four hours, Smith had learned the basics of the process. He now knew how to go about engineering a barrel. The business did not fall into place right away. Though he had the rough elements in his head, there was still the matter of applying it to actual wood. To make matters even more challenging, Smith had taken a new job in his corporate industry. “Sixty days into this new job I get asked to come into the office and I get WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM
fired. They told me I was not a good enough fit,” says Smith. He was blindsided and quickly began a somewhat frantic search for a different position. During this time, his wife reminded him that other options remained on the table. “Through all this, my wife is going, ‘You can only apply for so many jobs a day, keep working on [the barrel business].’ So I keep working on it.” At this point in his journey, however, Smith had met a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. The quotes that he had received for necessary equipment were not promising; most put him in need of capital close to a million dollars to move forward. Instead of giving up, Smith turned to his father-in-law, an engineer who owned his own die shop, to try and figure out a way to fabricate his own equipment and keep costs down. “In all of this I’m still slowly working, I’ve got the whole business plan done,” notes Smith. “I’ve got the finances done, started the conversations with my father-inlaw about what equipment [we could just] build.” Smith was finally convinced that some kind of divine intervention was at work. He spoke with his wife, who was supportive, but realistic, and together they set a deadline: if he hadn’t sold a barrel in the next year, he would pack up his dreams of charring wood over an open fire and get back to his corporate career. Smith decided to attend that year’s cooper’s conference in San Diego, California. Up until that point, he had trouble finding a supplier, but at the tail end of 2016 the oak shortage began to taper and wood was in more abundant supply again. At the conference, he learned about the way that oak must be aged for whiskey barrels, recalling the reaction that some oak sellers had when he told them that he was buying from a lumber yard. “They were like, ‘Don’t sell that, that’s a bad barrel. That’s got harsh tannins in it. It’s going to taste crappy.’” Once Smith’s materials were stocked, he returned to the primary task at hand. He had a pallet of wood from which he thought 20 barrels could be made and decided that he would try to make one successful barrel out of that lot. Quite a low bar to set for himself, but Smith figured if he could make one good barrel, the rest would come. He enlisted the help of his father-in-law, who built him jigs, and invested in some old woodworking equipment, and together they built a set of staves. “I’ve got a barrel that on measurement
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