Business TURNING AN ART INTO A Speyside Bourbon Cooperage: A boon to Ohio distilleries.
STORY BY MICHAEL PRAMIK PHOTOGRAPHY BY WENDY PRAMIK
Coopering — the art of barrel making — is a craft traditionally performed by skilled artisans and, by some accounts, dates to the Celts in 350 B.C.
In Jackson, Ohio, the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage carries on the tradition with a modern twist. Thanks to state-of-the-art technology and a finely honed production process, Speyside can crank out 1,500 finely made, new white oak barrels each day to serve an evergrowing thirst for spirits production.
They do so in a 260,000-square-foot building that used to be a Merillat cabinet factory, combining automation with art to build a better barrel.
“For some things, we still need a human eye and a human to make decisions. But here at Speyside, we took the craft of making barrels and turned it into a manufacturing process,” said operations manager Alberto Ramirez.
And it’s an operation on the way up. Since completing its first barrel on May 19, 2016, Speyside has expanded production to about 400,000 barrels each year. The company’s barrels are highly sought after by producers of bourbon and other spirits, from megadistilleries to small craft distillers.
It’s been a renewing experience for Jackson County as well, employing about 170 and giving new life to the shuttered building just off State Route 93.
Speyside, established in 1947, is based in Scotland and originally refurbished used barrels, Ramirez said. It took on a much larger footprint in 2008 with its acquisition by Tonnellerie Francois Freres Group, based in France, which owns stave mills and cooperages around the world.
A CLOSER LOOK
Inside the Speyside factory, 130 production workers use their various talents to make the barrels.
It starts with sourcing white oak logs, many from Ohio. Speyside owns five sawmills, including two nearby in Waverly, Ohio. There, they debark the logs, then quartersaw them into planks, also known as staves. The staves go through several months of
Wooden staves form the barrel.
WHEN YOU BUY OHIO SPIRITS, YOUR TAX DOLLARS BENEFIT THE ECONOMY — INCLUDING THE EMPLOYEES AT SPEYSIDE BOURBON COOPERAGE. SPEYSIDE WORKED WITH JOBSOHIO TO BRING ITS FACILITY AND JOBS TO THE SMALL COMMUNITY OF JACKSON, OHIO. drying to reduce moisture content, including predrying in a temperature-controlled warehouse space, before they enter the kiln.
Using four computerized jointers, Speyside workers profile the staves to exacting specifications so barrel raisers can begin to shape them into the traditional form. The barrels go through several more steps, including a steam bath, fitting the heads (lids), and having hoops applied, before the final testing stages. There, workers drill bung holes into the barrels and add water and air to check for leaks before the barrels are given a final once-over.
Finished barrels don’t hang around long. They’re packed immediately onto trucks for their customers, and all wood waste and byproduct goes through a grinder and is used to generate the steam for the barrel making process.
The “acorn to cask” operation makes the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage a one-of-a-kind Ohio business.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
Ramirez noted that, “Ohio has been great for Speyside.” And according to Ohio distillers Speyside is great for Ohio, too.
Columbus-based distiller Middle West Spirits has been purchasing barrels since the Jackson plant’s opening. Middle West jumped at the chance to keep its business within Ohio.
“The proximity was an immediate attention grabber,” owner and head distiller Ryan Lang said. “We could go visit them, be trained by them on better practice of barrel management, and have a lot of flexibility on the customization of barrel processing.
“The team there is amazing, and we have had a pretty great relationship with them.”
Speyside works with Middle West to test char and toasting levels for its various distillations. Lang said Speyside’s worldwide network provides for better availability of barrels used for aged spirits, such as the Middle West Whiskey Double Cask Collection.
Barrel sourcing is no small choice for a distiller the size of Middle West, which produces 18,000 barrels of spirits a year and distributes to 32 states.
“We wanted to keep any sourcing we could in the fair state of Ohio,” Lang said. “We get all of our grains here, and glass from Anchor Hocking (in Lancaster), but one of the chief spends for a whiskey distiller is the barrels. To have that in our own state is tremendous.”