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(Note: The following post was originally published in Nov. 2015 and updated in Oct. 2017)

As most avid bourbon fans know, a number of strict requirements must be met by distillers before their precious distilled spirit can legally be labeled and sold in America as “bourbon.” Of all those requirements, perhaps the most intriguing and complicated benchmark involves a product that you’ll likely never see on the store shelf or at the bar – the bourbon barrel.

By law, bourbon must be aged in charred, American oak vessels that are used once and never again for bourbon. Yup, that’s right. Every last ounce of bourbon must be aged in a fresh, new barrel. Cumbersome and costly? Perhaps. But generations of Master Distillers have agreed time and time again that it’s worth it. Many argue that the barrel and subsequent aging have the biggest impact on bourbon’s signature flavor.

Intro to Barrel Making

When you consider that over 19 million cases of bourbon were sold in 2014, it’s pretty easy to see how the demand for an endless amount of new barrels starts adding up quickly. While this unique requirement gives the bourbon industry a specific set of challenges, it also creates some incredibly unique visitor experiences for those adventurous aficionados eager to see a different side of bourbon. Bourbon distilleries on and off the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® have soared in popularity over the years and many are making time to visit and tour cooperages – factories where bourbon barrels are made.

Today, two major cooperages provide the vast number of barrels to bourbon makers throughout Kentucky and beyond: Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, KY and The Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville. For a fascinating look into the detailed and meticulous process of making a vessel in which bourbon spends years maturing, each one is worth a visit.

Independent Stave Company

The Independent Stave Company knows a thing or two about crafting the perfect barrel – they’ve been at it for over 105 years. TW Boswell (a name that for many has become just as synonymous with bourbon as the name Beam) started milling in the Missouri Ozarks in the heart of White Oak Country in 1912. These days, Independent Stave Company Trucks, which roll out of the Kentucky Cooperage location, are a common site roaming the highways and byways in counties throughout the state. After all, ISC provides thousands and thousands of new barrels to several major distilleries every year. The company offers an eye-opening detailed, industrial factory tour.

Visitors here have the opportunity on three daily tours to see the manual shaping of the staves, the fire that chars the inside of each barrel, the manual placement of the metal hoop and, most importantly, watching coopers make sure that each container is liquid-tight without any nails, glue or other man made sealers. Any visit to ISC’s Kentucky Cooperage will provide fascinating insights into how those endless ricks of barrels you see in storage are created.

Brown-Forman Cooperage

Paying a visit to the Brown-Forman Cooperage is a quite different experience. Located less than 1,000 feet from an active runway near Louisville International Airport, the cooperage is hard to find, but full of amazing history. Brown-Forman started the cooperage in this location back in 1945. Many modern updates have been added to the facility, but the majority of the process has remained unchanged for decades. Most notably, Brown-Forman has bragging rights as the world’s only major distiller which both owns and manufactures its own barrels.

The cooperage makes more than 600,000 barrels solely for brands under the Brown-Forman umbrella such as Old Forester, Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels. (Hey, even Tennessee Whiskeys need barrels, too.) Each barrel in this cooperage is made exclusively of white oak and holds exactly 53.4 gallons. Once complete, the empty vessels weigh more than 120 pounds. Being a cooper is hard, hot work in the summer and tough, cold work in the winter.

Cooperage Tours

The Independent Stave Company’s Kentucky Cooperage is located at 712 E. Main Street and offers complimentary factory tours at 9 and 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday-Friday. A stop at the Kentucky Cooperage can be included on a personalized, custom tour with Mint Julep Tours. The Brown-Forman Cooperage is not open for public tours, but private tours can booked exclusively through Mint Julep Tours. Call 502-583-1433 or e-mail info@MintJulepTours.com to book a tour today.

So, next time you raise a glass, make sure that you save a toast for the beloved and often overlooked barrel. Your drink has earned that moniker of bourbon in no small part to the effort of those charred staves adding 100% of the color and upwards of 60% of the flavor of your beverage. Never discount the role that this unsung oak hero plays in America’s native spirit. After all, bourbon is only as good as the barrel from which it was once poured!

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