CALDWELL, West Virginia — The story of West Virginia Great Barrel Co. is about the rebirth of a community after a natural disaster as well as the ambitious plan and development of a start-up business.
It’s also the story of the importance of drying wood properly, particularly for the purpose of making barrels that are used to age bourbon, other spirits, and wine. After all, the wood of the barrel reportedly accounts for up to 70 percent of the flavor of the aged spirit.
In the case of West Virginia Great Barrel, the company partnered with SII Dry Kilns for the drying technology it needed — a pre-dryer and a dry kiln — to produce world class products, which are supplied to world class customers. The company makes a premium barrel and has customers in the U.S. and abroad.
West Virginia Great Barrel is based in Caldwell, West Virginia. It is a short distance from Lewisburg and is conveniently located next to Interstate 64, which provides good access east and west and to other interstates north and south.
The cooperage, where the wood components are finished and barrels are manufactured, is located in Caldwell. The company also operates a sawmill and stave mill about 25 miles south in a hamlet named Gap Mills. The sawmill was severely damaged in a fire last fall and is currently being rebuilt.
The company’s combined operations employ roughly 100 people with the two mills are running — about 50 at the cooperage and the remainder at the mills. The mill workers divide their time between the sawmill and the stave mill. The job numbers are down slightly while the sawmill is being rebuilt.
The cooperage, which represents an investment of more than $40 million, is designed to be able to produce about 150,000 barrels annually. It is not operating at full capacity yet but is ramping up since the cooperage began operating near the end of 2019.
The business has its genesis in a thousand-year storm and resulting flooding in June 2016 that inundated the valley and devastated the nearby town of White Sulphur Springs. The flooding claimed the lives of 13 people, and hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged.
After the flooding, a small group of businessmen in the region came together, including the five men who went on to found West Virginia Great Barrel. They realized the town would die if they did not do something to get residents back into homes, quickly. They came up with a plan, raised money, and convinced the town’s leaders to trade flooded lots for land on higher ground. They collaborated with churches and other charitable organizations to provide labor and talent, and 37 houses were built by Christmas.
They didn’t stop there, recalled Phil Cornett, 62, a founding partner in the company and who now has the role of timber and stave procurement manager. “We were reminded,” recalled Phil, “without economic development, you can’t have community development.” The group of businessmen began considering ways to create jobs.
Tom Crabtee, who has long ties to the community even though he lives in Pennsylvania, where he has an architectural firm, was at a Christmas dinner and sat next to one of the founders of Smooth Ambler Spirits, a world class bourbon distillery only 14 miles away. Pernod Ricard, a French company and the world’s second-largest seller of wine and spirits, acquired a majority interest in Smooth Ambler in early 2017. Pernod Ricard wanted to increase Smooth Ambler production, Tom learned in conversation that night, but the company was limited because it could not buy enough barrels.
Tom immediately seized on the idea — the opportunity to create a barrel manufacturing business in West Virginia to supply Smooth Ambler — and began working with the other businessmen to put together a business plan and raise financing.
“It was a great opportunity for us to create a business,” said Phil, who brought his experience in business financing and a number of businesses and industries, including technology, software, the environment, hospitality, and manufacturing. “We also recognized the unique relationship between the logging community and the mill community and wanted to create a model at the mill that was fair to logging contractors,” said Phil.
The principals bought an existing sawmill and built a second mill next to it to produce staves for barrels. High-grade white oak logs that meet specifications are supplied to the stave mill.
The stave mill was designed by Bruning & Federle, a North Carolina company, and completely equipped by Kentucky-based Brewco, a company well known for manufacturing machinery for the sawmill, pallet, railroad tie, and stave industries.
The new sawmill, now under construction, is being completely equipped by Cleereman Industries and is expected to begin operating in September.
The cooperage production facilities are housed in three buildings with a combined 90,000 square feet. They include the main production plant and SII pre-dryer, which are connected. The pre-dryer is 25,000 square feet.
Most of the cooperage equipment — steaming to bend the staves, assembling them and forming the barrel, and banding together with hoops — was supplied by one company, Bohnert Equipment in Kentucky, although various systems were designed by multiple firms. Bohnert also supplied equipment to use infrared technology to ‘toast’ the interior of the finished barrel and then to char it with a gas-fired burner system, and the company also supplied robotic equipment to automate processes and material handling and conveying systems.
Decisions about wood drying technology had to take into account a number of factors. West Virginia Great Barrel uses tight grain white oak for all its wood components. In addition, the green components are stacked and placed in the stave mill yard to cure for six months. In fact, the company has some customers that prefer the wood to be cured even longer — 12 to 18 months. The mill is situated in a valley between two mountain ranges; a natural wind tunnel provides a constant breeze year-round, an ideal climate for curing the oak.
“We have to have moisture to flush the tannins out of the wood,” said Phil. “Getting the surface moisture and some bound moisture out…there’s no other way to do other than mother nature…We cure for six months in mother nature, then we use the pre-dryer to truly equalize the lumber.”
The company considered various kiln suppliers and accepted bids from companies.
SII has over 100 installations in the region, according to Phil. “That was important.” He visited some of those drying operations to learn about the performance of the SII kilns and their relationship with SII, and he was pleased with the responses he received from existing SII customers.
SII also has experience supplying drying equipment to other cooperages. “They were experienced in our industry…and understood the process we were trying to put together here,” said Phil, curing and then drying.
“Our industry stumbled onto some knowledge that the cabinet industry already had,” noted Phil. A pre-dryer, reducing the moisture content of the wood at a lower temperature than a dry kiln and in a slower process, produces high quality wood products and a better yield, he said.
“(SII sales representative) Ken Matthews and his group did a wonderful job serving us and were on time and on budget,” he added. The dry kiln and pre-dryer are “doing great.”
The pre-dryer has a capacity of 510,000 board feet. It is divided into four zones, with each zone the equivalent of two kiln charges. It is used to dry the barrel staves — the staves that make up the sides of the barrel. The kiln, with 65,000 board feet of capacity, is used to dry the heading staves, which are used to make the heading or lids of the barrels.
Kiln and pre-dryer are controlled by SII’s computer control system. The steam heat is provided by a Hurst 400 hp boiler.
Using the pre-dryer in effect like a kiln is unique, according to Ken. “I’m not aware of anyone else doing it,” he said.
SII made some custom modifications to the kiln and pre-dryer to accommodate West Virginia Great Barrel. The size of the pre-dryer was customized, for example, for the target stave capacity. The amount of heat and air also were tailored. Since the staves cure for at least six months, “It doesn’t take a lot of heat or air” to dry them, noted Ken. The customization increased the heat in the pre-dryer and reduced it in the kiln.
The pre-dryer represents an original design by SII. It is a cross-flow system versus the down-draft design. “The fans are in the center,” said Ken. “It’s a lot better, provides more even drying…That’s why they thought they could use it as a kiln.”
The pre-dryer began operating in February, and the kiln in March. Even though the units were customized for drying quarter-sawn white oak, with SII’s computer controls, they can be used to dry any type of lumber.
North Carolina-based SII Dry Kilns, family-owned and operated, has been in business since 1969. It has well over 2,000 wood drying facilities operating around the world. The company offers hardwood kilns, softwood kilns, pre-dryers, thermal modification and vacuum dryers, heat-treaters, firewood kilns, fan sheds, steamers, kiln controls, drying accessories.
SII Design Cross Flow Pre-dryers reduce drying times by 30 percent or more from conventional pre-dryers. The heavy-duty aluminum center fan wall with stacked fans and motors, which allow for ground level inspection and easy maintenance, achieve air flow speeds of up to 400 feet per minute while fan frequency drives reduce electrical use by up to 90 percent.
The Brewco-equipped stave mill takes logs in lengths of 10 and 12 feet and from 10-26 inches in diameter, and they are indexed to produce either 37- or 25-inch staves for the walls of the barrel or the heading. The logs are debarked on a Rosser head debarker, then they are cut lengthwise in half by a circular saw. A chain infeed takes the material through a vertical band mill to be cut in half again so the material now is in quarters. Then the quarters are sawn by two horizontal band resaws with return systems that kick off the board and flip the 2-sided cant over to remove a board from the opposite side. The cants continue to go through the return system until the last board is removed. The staves feed directly to a two-saw edger and then via belt conveyor to a grading table. Graders examine each piece of material to determine if it needs to be resawn, ripped or cut to length to meet specs for barrel staves or heading staves.
The stave mill, a capital investment of about $10 million, can produce 17-18,000 pieces per shift “on a good day,” said Phil. Production varies mainly by the quality and condition of the logs. A barrel requires 26-31 staves and 16-18 pieces of heading.
After curing and drying, the cooperage has two specialty woodworking machines to finish the process of making barrel staves and heading. French manufacturer Monnot supplied three planer-jointers for the staves and one for the heading. The planer-jointer cuts an angle on the edge of the stave that varies continuously along the length of the stave; the continuously variable joining allows the stave to be wider in the middle — where it bends more — and narrower at the end.
“The machine will cut that out and apply an angle that matches the diameter of the barrel at every point along the length,” explained Brett Wolfington, 36, general manager of West Virginia Great Barrel. “A traditional planer-jointer will not cut it like that.” This type of planer-jointer is exceedingly rare in cooperages, according to Brett.
The other Monnot machine cuts a tongue and groove on the edges of the heading staves. Both machines use computer numerical control (CNC) technology. The heading staves are joined together in a Monnot hydraulic press to form the lids, a process which requires no fasteners or adhesive.
The toasting process, before charring, is the key to flavor associated with aging whiskey in oak barrels, noted Brett. Distillers have recognized in recent years that toasting the interior of the barrel prior to charring produces a greater variety of flavors — like vanilla and caramel — as the bourbon ages. “That has become more popular,” said Brett. Barrels traditionally were toasted with fire, a process that is labor intensive and produces inconsistent results.
The infrared technology that West Virginia Great Barrel uses ensures a very accurate and consistent toasting process. The company offers three levels of toasting according to the customer’s preference.
Distilleries that produce bourbon need a steady supply of new oak barrels. In fact, federal law requires bourbon to be produced in new oak barrels. After they are used, many are supplied to distilleries in Scotland that use them for aging scotch whiskey.
West Virginia Great Barrel already has grown beyond serving Smooth Ambler. It also produces barrels for other bourbon distilleries and wineries. Only one bourbon distiller — Brown Forman, maker of Jack Daniels — makes its own barrels, noted Brett. All others buy barrels from the cooperage industry.
West Virginia Great Barrel has “a lot of customers,” some small and some of the biggest distillers or wineries in the industry, according to Brett. “We have customers all over the world. We’re preparing an order for China right now.” The company is looking at potentially adding customers in Japan and Ireland.
West Virginia Great Barrel is active in several trade associations: the American Cooperage Industries of America, the American Craft Spirits Association, and the American Distiller Institute.The company is about to sponsor a scholarship for an internship program for the ADI. The scholarship would enable someone to have an internship at the cooperage to learn about making barrels and then at a distillery to learn about crafting spirits.
The company offers above average pay and full medical, dental, vision, life, and disability insurance for employees. It also has a 401(k) retirement savings plan with company match and vacation benefits.
Barrels are priced at a slight premium. “Our focus has initially been on the higher-end market,” said Brett, “but we are providing barrels to both small craft distilleries and the largest distilleries in the industry.”
Brett was asked how the company has been able to make inroads in the cooperage industry so quickly, competing against other older and well-established cooperages. “We produce an exceptionally high quality product,” he said. “Our technology allows us to provide features in barrels that are desirable to distillers but were unattainable or unaffordable in the past.”
In West Virginia, the company has access to abundant forest resources that provide tight grain white oak trees, which are highly desired by distilleries, Brett noted. “We’re using the plentiful natural resource of this area along with modern technology and skilled labor to produce barrels that are higher quality than anything else on the market.”
The SII wood drying technology helps them achieve that level of excellence. “The most important part of the barrel,” noted Brett, “is the wood.”