Artisan Spirit: Spring 2020

Page 41

Art of the Bung W

hen I told Brian Christensen, Artisan Spirit’s publisher and chief editor, that I wanted to write something about the humble wooden barrel bung, he replied with his characteristic enthusiasm, “Yes! And feel free to go heavy on the bunghole puns!” I am sad to disappoint, but during a long, wide-ranging discussion about bungs with Eric Frey, sales and marketing manager for Cincinnati Dowel & Wood Products Co., not a single bunghole joke was made. Call it professional restraint. However, I did learn quite a lot about bungs, the unsung hero of leak-stopping. Our conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.

How did Cincinnati Dowel & Wood get into the whiskey bung business? We’ve been in business since 1925. The primary business focus has been dowel rods and turnings, furniture plugs, joint plugs, things in that line. There was a period where we did an absolutely huge amount of bungs for Anheuser-Busch, for Hoff-Stevens style kegs which used a wooden bung. However, as the industry transitioned to Sankey kegs, the demand for wooden bungs went way down. Eventually, this caused us to get out of the bung business. We scrapped some machinery and refocused. Fast forward to 2008 and 2009, when


we were approached by some folks from the whiskey side of things who needed a bung with tighter tolerances. We pride ourselves on having the highest quality, so it seemed like it could be a good fit business-wise. We built some machines in-house, and customers were happy with the product. As the years went by, we continued to add more machinery and capacity. Now we are supplying about 90 percent of US wooden barrel bungs, and almost all of Canada after we acquired a bung division in Canada, along with a couple of customers in Europe and Central America. We have a bunch of different machines running thousands per day. Most


are standard two-inch bungs, but we can manage down to one-inch and can go up to six-inch (not necessarily for the whiskey industry). As time progressed, we saw what other cooperage wood products we can supply, so we make spiles and wedges, and head pins for cooperages which haven’t switched to tongue and groove.

Why are bungs made of poplar? Poplar tends to be the most popular. They’re about 80 percent of what we do. But I’ve never really gotten an answer as to why poplar. I’ve heard guesses that it’s because it’s soft enough that it won’t damage the barrel, but they really swell with moisture to seal tight. Part of the “why” might be that it’s how your dad did and how his dad did it, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix