Marching to the beat of your own drum: DIY coopering and the necessities of being resourceful as an Independent distillery.
Our first barrel order was small. Microscopic even compared to many other “Craft Distilleries”. 12 new charred, 23 Gallon American Oak barrels and 8 new 53 gallon barrels. We had high hopes of filling them all, wondering where we were going to put the next round of barrels once these were all full.Then we ran into a series of problems with our still. After several months of tinkering and repairs, we were back on track to start filling barrels. In this time, they had mostly dried out.You see most distilleries receive regular orders of barrels, they have set schedules and know how quickly they can fill them. We, starting from scratch, had no idea what to expect. When barrels arrive from a cooperage, they are freshly made and watertight. The production of barrels involves steaming the staves so that they can be bent into the rounded shape you see in barrels. No glue is ever used. Just wood and metal hoops. If not refilled relatively quickly (within a couple months), the wood will begin to dry up and the barrel becomes loose and no longer holds liquid.And so, here we were. At around $200 a piece, this wasn’t something we could just write off as a mistake. I had heard of people re-swelling barrels but knew very little about it, so, like anyone else with a DIY mindset, I took to the internet. There was very little info to be found other than a couple short articles and posts on forums and one very helpful video.Coopering, the art of creating barrels, was nearly a dead trade not too long ago. There were only a handful of cooperage's supplying nearly every distillery and winery around the world. It is also a trade that requires years of apprenticeship to master. This is the reason for such little information online. Since the rise of small distilleries though, this is starting to change and new cooperage's are being built.After digging up whatever information I could find, it was time to have a crack at repairing our barrels.The first step was to fill the barrel and see where the leaks were and how bad they had dried out. Within seconds of turning on the hose, water began pouring out onto the floor. The only way it could be worse was if the barrels actually fell apart. I turned off the water and the moved the barrel into one of the large tubs we used to scoop our spent grain into for removal. This way as the water poured out it would simply fill the tub. If I couldn’t keep water in and around the barrel, there was no way it would absorb enough water to swell back up. This was left for a couple days, rotated every so often to ensure even exposure. After this the barrel was removed and placed on the floor, still full of water, so that leaks could be located and identified.There was still significant leakage, but it was at least holding liquid at this point.From this point I began doing some actual cooper’s work. Using a heavy hammer and a tool known as a “Hoop Driver” that I had simply crafted from a stone chisel (while saving about $100 by not purchasing a proper one), I began the process of tightening down the hoops. This is done by working your way around the barrel and hammering the hoops further down the barrel, thereby tightening the staves together to reduce space for leaks to occur. This does not however, work for all leaks. Leaks on the head of the barrel and leaks caused by anomalies in the shape of certain staves require further action. This involves using a chisel and/or a wood punch to create a gap in the stave, thereby spreading the actual stave wider, and then hammering in new wood into the gap to keep it from closing back up. There’s always a little fear you could split the stave while doing this and in doing so, rendering the barrel useless. It’s even scarier when you’re trying to repair a leak on a barrel full of precious whiskey. (I only do this when the accountant is away)After swelling and repairing several barrels I felt I was starting to get the hang of things. It was still a long process but do able over several days. Then I had an epiphany that I should have had from the start.What if I tightened the hoops before attempting to swell the barrel? There was a chance I could knock the hoops and staves completely out of alignment but it was worth a shot. So I started hammering away and, while wondering how far I should try to drive the hoops, I began to notice something. As the hoops got tighter and tighter and hard to drive the barrel begin to ring a bit. Being a drummer who had spent years in several bands before beginning the distillery it was a familiar feeling. That feeling of a drum coming to life when replacing a drumhead and tuning it back up. Drums and barrels share similar shapes and characteristics. It made perfect sense that tuning the barrel would help eliminate leaks. That ring was the sound of all the staves being pulled tightly together so that they rang in unison. It was now time to put this theory to the test.The barrel was placed in the tub and filled with water. There was still a lot of leaking but this was expected as the staves were completely dry at this point. A couple days later and the barrel was removed.No leaks!By using knowledge and skills gained in other parts of my life I had found a solution to be applied to the distillery. This is a common theme with 451 Spirits. My experiences with photography, namely analog and manual photography, gave me the idea to create our “Flavored Spirits” in the still, with real ingredients like apples, mint and lime, rather than “editing” or “photoshopping” them afterwards to mask mistakes and off flavors. Proper exposure and proper cuts, barrels properly tuned. It all comes together in the spirits we create.I hope you’ll try them as we continue to create unique and visionary expressions in the years to come!Cheers!Chad KesslerChief Distiller451 Spirits