North Alabama is home to a lot of high-tech, space-age manufacturing, but there’s a decidedly down-to-earth industry thriving here as well: Tennessee whiskey.
The Jack Daniel’s distillery is up the road in Lynchburg, Tennessee, but they couldn’t make it without the key ingredient, grown, cut, built and burnt right here.
WAAY 31 got a rare look inside the Jack Daniel's Cooperage in Lawrence County. It could be considered sacred ground for whiskey lovers, although it looks more like hell times on the inside thanks to the charring process. More on that in a minute.
“We are building the number one ingredient in Jack Daniel's whiskey,” said Plant manager, Darrell Davis, who guided us through the plant and the barrel-making process. One hundred forty skilled technicians build the barrels. Once filled, the wood will work magic – slowly transforming clear, hard liquor into smooth, amber-colored Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. Davis says the barrels are made with just two materials, “And that’s American white oak and American craftsmanship.”
The white oak is grown locally, much of it milled just ninety miles away in Stevenson, Alabama. Then, it’s trucked to the cooperage in Trinity, where it’s dried to remove most of the moisture and sap.
“And then it goes through a series of machining processes to get the staves and the heading material ready to be assembled,” said Davis, “Or what we call raising the barrel.”
Much of the barrel-making process is automated these days, but raising the barrel is too critical to be left to a machine. It’s still a hands-on process. We watched Taylor Howard at work. He showed us how he does it. “Basically, keep it nice and tight towards the bottom...”
Howard’s been with the company for three years and does this with amazing speed. He sets thirty-two staves in place in a form, kicking them tightly in place at the bottom. Then, he carefully selects the thirty-third piece which must fit exactly into the space to tighten all of them up. I asked him how long it took him to master it. “Hey, it’s rough. You can’t get it on the first time. It takes repetition, but once you get ahold of it, it’s just like going to bed.”
They use no glue, no adhesives, no nails. And they can’t make them fast enough.
“We produce right at twelve hundred barrels a day, five days a week,” said Davis. Yes, that’s six thousand barrels a week! And each barrel holds fifty-three gallons of Old Number 7. That’s a lot of whiskey.
Right now, the industry’s explosive growth is hindered by the trade war. According to a report released in February 2019 by the Distilled Spirits Council, retaliatory tariffs in Canada, Mexico, China and the European Union generated sobering numbers for American whiskey makers last year. Exports fell by 8.7 percent in the last half of 2018 as tariffs kicked in.
While exports of American-made whiskey did take a hit last year, the Distilled Spirits Council also reported record sales domestically in 2018. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry that shows no sign of slowing down. American whiskey sales in the state were up 6.6 percent to $3.6 billion. Jack Daniel’s and other distillers are projecting even stronger sales when the tariffs end. Something Davis is expecting.
“This facility was designed to expand based on business needs,” he said.
Meanwhile, back on the production line, steam and steel rings help form the now basket-shaped staves into the familiar barrel shape. Then, the inside of the barrels is toasted and charred to bring out the wood's natural sugars. This is where the barrels truly become the main ingredient in the whiskey.
“This helps finish the caramelization of the wood to get one hundred percent of the color and up to sixty percent of that taste. This adds to that,” said Davis.
Finally, the heads of the barrel – the top and bottom – which were built from tongue-and-groove slats and cut to shape – are pounded into place. Six hoops are attached to hold the barrel together and the bunghole is cut, the only way in and out of the barrel. The barrels move on to a pressure test. If they pass, they’re loaded onto a truck for the seventy-five-mile trip to Lynchburg.
Four years later, the barrels will turn out the most popular American whiskey in the world. American made from start to finish. And it couldn’t happen without this cooperage.
“Yeah,” says Davis chuckling. “It wouldn’t be Jack without these barrels.”
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