Alabama-Made Barrels Bring Taste To Tennessee Whiskey
An Alabama factory plays a big role in producing the whiskey that has made the tiny Tennessee town of Lynchburg world famous.
Many barrels used to age Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey to perfection are made in Lawrence County.
“We produce the No. 1 ingredient used in making Jack Daniel’s whiskey,” said Darrell Davis, plant director of the Trinity cooperage. “The barrels give the whiskey its taste and color. Whiskey goes into the barrel as clear as water and comes out at the end of the aging process with a rich, nutty taste and a light caramel color.”
Since 2012, employees at the Jack Daniel Cooperage in Alabama have crafted American white oak into barrels used for aging the popular whiskey. The facility, located on U.S. Highway 72 west of Decatur, produces about 1,300 barrels a day. The staves — vertical wooden planks used to make the barrels — come from Jack Daniel’s sawmills in Stevenson, Alabama, and Clifton, Tennessee. Wood for the sawmills is cut throughout the Tennessee Valley, Davis said.
American white oak is the preferred wood for making whiskey barrels. Experts say it gives distilled spirits a nutty flavor with a hint of vanilla.
Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett said the 53-gallon barrels are responsible for all the color in the famous Tennessee whiskey and more than half the flavor.
“The barrel couldn’t be more important to our whiskey-making process,” he said.
Around 200 people from throughout north Alabama and south Tennessee work at the Trinity plant. Raw lumber arriving from the sawmills is dried in kilns before heading inside the plant, where it is planed to the correct thickness and then cut to the proper length and width. Lumber for barrel staves is cut with a beveled edge, and about 30 are used in each barrel. Barrel heads are made from tongue-and-groove edge wood.
Steam softens the staves, forming them into the distinctive curved shape of a whiskey barrel. Assembling the barrels is called the raising process. Staves are held together with a series of temporary hoops until permanent metal hoops are installed near the end of the production process. Six permanent hoops encase a finished barrel.
After the barrels are formed, those produced at the Trinity plant are toasted — a long, slow heating of the wood. The process is a closely guarded secret. No cameras or cellphones are allowed in that part of the plant. Toasting contributes to the unique flavor of Jack Daniel’s, Davis said.
After toasting, the inside of the barrels is charred using an open flame. A 1,500 F flame heats the inside of the barrel for 13 seconds. A jet of water then cools the inside of the barrel and extinguishes embers. Charring adds to the color of the whiskey. It also filters the whiskey as temperatures fluctuate during the aging process, drawing the whiskey into and out of the wood.
In addition to the Trinity plant, Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel’s, operates a cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky. It is the only whiskey maker that produces its own barrels.
Barrels produced at the Trinity plant are marked with a J, for Jack Daniel’s, on rivets that hold the metal hoops together. Those produced in Louisville are marked with a B, for Brown-Forman.
All the barrels produced in Trinity are used at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Barrels produced at the Louisville cooperage are used for aging Jack Daniel’s and other Brown-Forman products.
No glue or sealants are used on the barrels. Precise cutting of the staves and the cooperage’s skilled workers allow the barrels to hold whiskey without any leaks. Each barrel is tested for leaks before leaving the plant.
Davis said transforming wood into barrels is a dying art.
“There used to be cooperages all over the country,” he said. “Everything from flour and crackers to whiskey used to be shipped in wooden barrels. But as plastic and cardboard containers started to gain popularity in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the need for wooden barrels declined, and most of the cooperages went out of business.”
By federal law, a barrel can be used only once for aging bourbon or Tennessee whiskey. Barrels often find a second shot at life as furniture and flower planters or are used in Scotland to age Scotch, proof that the bottom of the barrel isn’t so bad after all.