Barrel Fever

As bourbon demand rises, Virginia is bringing the barrels.

Back in 1964, when Congress officially recognized bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States,” it created a handful of rules to govern its making. In addition to US provenance, corn content, and distillation proof limits; the law dictates aging bourbon for a minimum of two years in a new, charred American White Oak barrel. It’s that last point—the barrels—that involves Virginia and, specifically, our mighty white oak trees (Quercus alba).

Based in Jackson, Ohio, Speyside Bourbon Cooperage Inc. is a subsidiary of Speyside in Scotland and owned by the 100-plus-year-old TFF Group (France). After setting its sights on Bath County, the company opened a stave mill there in Spring 2018. An additional mill in Southwest Virginia’s Glade Spring and a bourbon cooperage in nearby Atkins (population 1,143) opened in early 2020. The $26 million Atkins facility is the most modern cooperage currently in operation in the world, the company notes.

With some of the country’s finest white oak, Virginia is an ideal locale for producing barrel staves and headers, the narrow strips of wood that make up the sides of the barrel. White oak is also used for barrel heads. After milling and shaping, the staves and barrel heads are airdried to reduce wood tannins that could impart bitterness to the bourbon. Speyside prides itself on applying state-of-the-art technology and modern manufacturing principles to the age-old craft of barrel-making. SpeysideBCI.com


This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue.

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