Uncommonwealth: Reclaiming bourbon barrel hobby turns into a business for Lexington man

Tony Davis makes functional and decorative pieces out of used Buffalo Trace distillery bourbon barrels at his studio on Manchester Street.
Tony Davis makes functional and decorative pieces out of used Buffalo Trace distillery bourbon barrels at his studio on Manchester Street. Lexington Herald-Leader

Tony Davis doesn't see this downtown studio — filled with bourbon barrels being cut and shellacked and attached to bourbon- and horse-related decorative bits — as his work. He sees it as his legacy.

"This is not really about money," he said on a recent bitterly cold day in his studio on Manchester Street. "I don't really think I'm going to be famous. I want to leave a legacy."

He hopes his legacy will be the items he makes in his studio that include sculpture, Lazy Susans, cutting boards, bottle openers and the like that he creates from used Buffalo Trace distillery bourbon barrels.

Davis started out making a few items for a few people. Then, as others saw his handiwork, the crafting became a more established hobby, and finally a full-fledged business. He was inspired by the artisan work he saw being made from wine barrels while in California in the Marines.

The Kentucky Knows is probably the most elaborate piece he makes in his company, 300 Studio, which opened in 2010.

It's a nearly human-size figure made of wood with eyes that are reclaimed Blanton bottle toppers that feature metal horses and a long shellacked corn nose, in deference to the 51 percent corn that bourbon must contain. The sculpture can be finished with miniature bottles of bourbon that must be provided by the buyer. Davis cannot provide them himself because he does not have a liquor license.

He adorns his Lazy Susans with the Blanton metal horses so it appears as if the horses are racing around in the circle when the item is spun. And he sells bags of bourbon char nuggets — called Grillin' Charr — which are used for smoking meat while grilling.

Although he has worked extensively with Buffalo Trace distillery, Davis hopes to use other barrels eventually.

Davis' most expensive items are the Kentucky Knows, which run about $350 without liquor, followed by easels at $325 and wine racks at $275. Cutting boards run $49.99 to $69.99.

Davis didn't think about legacies while growing up near downtown Lexington. He thought about struggling to fit in with richer kids and making passing grades at Arlington Elementary and Bryan Station junior and senior high schools.

Although he has a full-time day job in federal law enforcement, Davis said that he often works 6-7 hours after work, plus weekends, at his studio. He has employed an intern he plans to hire as the business' second employee.

Although some clients are interested in bourbon barrel furniture, he will continue to offer only decorative pieces, he said.

Davis recently took his craft out of the studio, showing 15 children at the Beaumont branch of the Lexington Public Library how he works, stenciling their names on a piece of wood, then shellacking it.

Davis doesn't want the financial end of his business to ever override his heart, he said. What's important to him is giving back to the community, he said. Hal Gervis, director of Alltech's Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co., mentioned that Davis saw him while he was on his way to do the Town Branch clean-up, and Davis immediately changed his plans for the day to pitch in.

Davis said he wants to be a person known for "doing the right things, even when no one's watching. It really says who you are."