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Brown-Forman barrel makers on a 70-year roll

The head of the first barrel made at Brown-Forman’s Louisville cooperage, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary on Wednesday.
The head of the first barrel made at Brown-Forman’s Louisville cooperage, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary on Wednesday. Tracy Frederick

The first barrel rolled off the line at Brown-Forman’s cooperage in Louisville 70 years ago and, with very minor changes, the barrels still are rolling briskly today.

“We have been making new barrels for the whiskey industry longer than anyone else,” said master distiller Chris Morris. “We’re also the only major distilling company that makes its own new barrels — in the world.”

On Wednesday, they will honor that milestone with a ceremonial rolling and signing of the barrel by longtime employees, some of whom have been with the cooperage for 30 years or more.

The cooperage gives the distillery a competitive advantage, Morris said.

“When we’re making Woodford Reserve or Old Forester, we have complete control of the barrel from its inception to when we empty it for the bottling run,” Morris said. “That gives us the ability to make sure the color, flavor and aroma are just what we want, and that allows us to have unique barrels crafted for each brand, which plays into flavor color and aroma profiles.”

The Louisville cooperage has grown over the years and now turns out more than 400,000 barrels a year, including some for Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey distillery, he said. Brown-Forman also has a cooperage in Alabama that makes the majority of the Jack Daniel’s barrels. Jack Daniel’s is the top-selling American whiskey in the world and is growing steadily, and Brown-Forman is finishing a $100 million expansion.

Woodford Reserve also is adding capacity, with plans to double the number of pot stills in use and add warehouses to hold more barrels of aging bourbon. Old Forester, the company’s oldest brand, also is seeing a resurgence of popularity.

The Louisville cooperage has enough capacity to supply the increasing demand for Woodford Reserve as well as the Old Forester distillery that will be opening in downtown Louisville in 2017, he said.

And it also will supply barrels to the distillery Brown-Forman is building at Slane Castle in Ireland.

Typically, Irish and Scotch age in used bourbon barrels, “and we will do that, but we will also use new barrels, making it a new style of Irish whiskey,” Morris said. Some whiskey will go into new barrels first, some into bourbon barrels and then into new ones, and the barrels themselves will be made expressly for the Irish whiskey flavor profile, he said.

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