A few years back I had the great privilege to visit the Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky. In the past week I learned that this great, old cooperage, the oldest continuously operating new barrel whiskey cooperage in the world, is celebrating the 70th anniversary of their birth.
The Brown-Forman Cooperage was founded in 1945 as the Bluegrass Cooperage. They are one of just two major coopers creating white oak barrels for the Spirits industry. American white oak is a great, tight-grained wood that is ideal for making Spirits barrels and the wood prescribed by law for the maturation of the American Spirit, Bourbon. Brown-Forman boasts being the only major spirits firm to own and operate their own cooperage.
If you are a Whiskey fan, like me, this is a trip worth making. Luckily, the cooperage is open for public tours. The tours are very limited as this is a working cooperage after all. Find tour information here.
The sights and smells of cut and charred oak are incredible to witness. The visitor is struck by the great paradox of the size and technology at play along side the great skill of the human artisans. Barrel making has not greatly changed since being introduced by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. Modern tools and machinery allow the Brown-Forman Cooperage to create about 2,200 barrels per day or roughly half a million barrels per year.
It is here at the Brown-Forman Cooperage where barrels are hand-crafted for the aging of spirits such as Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Early Times, Canadian Mist, el Jimador, and Herradura (see our Herradura BOW feature here). However, the work that these barrels accomplish goes far beyond this impressive CV.
Primarily these barrels are destined to hold and age either Jack Daniels or one of Brown-Forman’s Bourbons. Once the spirit has been retrieved from the barrel it cannot be used for either Tennessee Whiskey or Bourbon.
Brown-Forman will use some of these barrels again for their other Whiskies and some will be sent to Mexico to Herradura and el Jimador, their Tequila brands. Still other barrels will be sold to distillers around the globe (not to mention the craft brewers). Through my years in the drinks biz I have witnessed these barrels maturing spirits in Scotland, Ireland, the Caribbean, South America, and Mexico.
This beautiful symbiotic relationship that starts with America’s spirit utilizing the cask just once and much of the world preferring the gently used casks to age their spirits creates a long, invisible thread from points across the globe reaching back to Louisville, Kentucky. That’s an incredible legacy. Happy birthday Brown-Forman Cooperage and congratulations.
Just for fun, here is a video I took of barrels being charred at the Brown-Forman Cooperage.