Free Shipping Within the USA

What is a Cooperage? Making Bourbon Barrels

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

What is a cooperage?

It's where a cooper plies his trade; a woodworking master who bends timber to their will. A cooper's profession makes wooden, staved vessels, such as barrels, buckets, tubs, and other containers. Typically, the wood is heated or steamed to shape it, and the staves are held together by metal or wooden hoops. Traditionally, the hoops are fitted by a, you probably guessed it, a hooper, who is an apprentice or assistant to a cooper.

What is a Cooperage? Making Bourbon Barrels

(Assembly of a barrel, Wikipedia Creative Commons, Bigsus)

Coopers and bourbon whiskey making

Barrel-making is a major part of America's whiskey, bourbon. Here are the key requirements for making bourbon:

  • Must be made in the USA. 
  • Has to be aged in new charred white oak barrels. This is what gives the juice its caramel, vanilla notes, and other flavors.
  • At least 51% corn
  • Not higher than 160 proof. The higher the proof, the more the flavors are removed. Think of vodka at 190; no flavor.
  • 125 proof into the barrel
  • 80 proof or higher into a glass bottle
  • Genuine, no additives or flavors.

Number two is where the cooper comes in. Like many professions and trades, the cooper almost died out in the 20th century, when mass production and conglomerates ruled the day. Everybody purchased their meat from the grocery store aisle; fewer and fewer people went to the butcher shop anymore. My uncle was a butcher by trade who found himself in those times. He finally gave it up to open an outdoor furniture store. Quite a change, from his specialty to a commodity anyone could sell, indistinguishable from  the tables and chairs from another store.

Everything old is new again

As Marketwatch noted, being a specialty butcher is a hot job right now. If only my uncle could have seen the return.

"There’s a lot of attention paid to the sourcing of the meat, how it was treated, whether it is local or organic, and so on. That’s a huge part of it now. There’s some new creativity in how the animals are broken down, though the basic cuts are pretty standard. But a lot of butchers are also recommending parts of the animal that used to be pretty unconventional to eat.:"

Similarly, the coopers are back. In the mid- to late 20th century, bourbon and other whiskeys became unloved, as that generation gravitated toward vodka and other spirits and mixed drinks. Now bourbon is back, to say the least. A bottle of some of the sought-after juice can set you back not just hundreds of dollars but thousands. 

Watching them char the new white oak barrels is fascinating: They use a "#4 char" which takes about 45 seconds in the char box.

A history of cooper

Cooperages go back to the ancient Egyptian and Roman empire days, and it was a craftmanship that fell into several specialties in Europe, i.e. a dry cooper who crafted vessels for dry goods, like cereal and tobacco. A wet cooper worked with liquid goods. A general cooper was employed in warehouses, on ships and in port, storing and shipping cargo.

 bourbon whiskey charred oak barrel cooper's workshop

(Cooper's workshop, Open air museum, Roscheider Hof, Wikipedia Creative Commons  Helge Klaus Rieder)

Today's coopers

Obviously the most in-demand jobs for coopers today are crafting barrels for wineries and distilleries. In the video above, they visit the Kentucky Cooperage in Lebanon, a beautiful bluegrass town. The company makes the barrels for many of the leading bourbon distilleries and brands: e.g., Maker's Mark, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Evan Williams.

The staves are the wooden oak "planks" that are plied into shape, held together by the metal hoops. "No sealants, no nails, no clue..."

They say the distilleries will fill the barrel within five to five days after delivery from the cooperage.

Maker's Mark says of its 46 bourbon: "The innovative wood-stave-finishing process starts with fully matured Maker's Mark® at cask strength. We then insert 10 seared virgin French oak staves into the barrel and finish it for nine weeks in our limestone cellar."

Old Forester's Cooperage

If you're visiting Bourbon Row in Louisville Kentucky, be sure the take the tour at Old Forester's. The distillery is unique in that it is the only distillery that has its own operating cooperage on site. Old Forester has been continuously making and selling bourbon longer than any other distillery, including during prohibition in the US, when the company (Brown-Forman) had a license for medicinal sales.

Bourbon flavors: Distillers vs Coopers

The good-hearted debate that goes on forever. Who is more responsible for the taste of the whiskey? You can probably imagine what the coopers say. In the very beginning a documentary about the Adirondack Barrel Cooperage,  co-owner Joe Blazosky smiles and says 80% is the barrel : ). 

Indeed, in the first video, Chad Spaulding of Kentucky Cooperage says the #4 char has the  "good dark caramel and vanilla flavors that most bourbon distilleries want here in Kentucky.

(Published by



Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published