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How is Bourbon made?

The Life of a Barrel

When the glow of a burning barrel lights the room, the familiar smell of charred oak is quick to follow, giving life to a barrel that will go forth and tempt taste buds near and far. In a small family cooperage along the southern edge of Louisville, Kentucky, craftsmen are tending to each step in the creation of American Oak barrels. The Kelvin Cooperage was founded in 1963 on the banks of the River Kelvin in Glasgow, Scotland where they served distilleries throughout Britain. In 1991, the operation relocated to Louisville, Kentucky to meet the growing demands of wineries and distilleries in the United States.

Federal law states that for a spirit to be labeled “bourbon” it must be made in the United States, aged in a new, charred oak container and be 50% corn based. A 25-gallon barrel with a #3 char is rolling off the production line and being inspected for quality. The craftsmanship is evident in every detail. The staves are of the finest quality, tightly held together by metal hoops. The barrel is branded with the Kelvin Cooperage crest and loaded.

This piece is part of a delivery headed to Red Eagle Distillery in northeast Ohio. Red Eagle is located in the Grand River Valley, an area known for their wineries and viticulture. It is housed in a meticulously preserved 200-year-old red barn, an homage to the stories of prohibition and the thought of spirits distilled here in days past. This distillery has capitalized on the area’s abundant resources and produces vodka and brandy from grapes. But this barrel is destined for the bourbon line.

Once the barrels are filled, the aging begins. Red Eagle has been making bourbon and rye since 2012. The location is an oasis and the neighboring South River Winery, housed in an old church, can be seen from across the rolling vineyards. Their current bourbon has been aged three years and several barrels continue to slumber in order to develop a depth and complexity of flavor. Once the barrel has been through the aging process and drained, Red Eagle is able to re-use some to continue the aging process for their brandy.

The remaining barrels are sold to area businesses. Debonné Vineyards uses barrels to age a Cabernet Sauvignon. Double Wing Brewing Co. ages select beers in the barrels, including Double Wing Imperial Stout and an Amber Rye Ale. These aged beers are made in small batches and not available year round. Great Lakes Brewery and Brick and Barrel Brewery also purchase the prized bourbon barrels for aging their products. Even a few serious home brewers have secured barrels for their craft.

bottles of bourbon

Bissell Maple Farm is the destination for the barrel that we are following. Bissell is a sixth generation maple farm in Jefferson, Ohio. They age syrup for at least six months to make Bourbon Barrel Maple Syrup. Bissell states, “We use our American Oak bourbon barrels one time for every batch of this specialty maple syrup. Flavors from the toasted oak barrel are drawn into the bourbon over several months. That character remains inside barrel walls, absorbed into the charred oak. Our maple syrup, produced in those barrels, is aged for months until the flavor is just right.”

Some of the maple water (a byproduct of syrup production) is sold back to Red Eagle for use in production of their Red Maple line. Bissell also sells their barrels to several breweries and wineries. Cleveland Whiskey used barrels to “gently rest” their bourbon for seven more months, giving it unique maple notes. The product was sold in their Underground line in limited quantities.

bourbon barrels

Our barrel is now headed down the road to Geneva’s Spring Hill Winery. While some will take the path of aging vinegar, this barrel is destined for cider. Spring Hill recently began producing hard apple ciders to accompany their already extensive menu of wines. They tried aging the cider in a bourbon maple barrel and the result was a mouthful…a delicious mouthful! The Bourbon Barrel Maple Cider is a hit.

The barrel is now ready to retire. These pieces of art are sought after for décor and furnishings since the fine craftsmanship and sturdy beauty are more pronounced after the journey. It’s amazing to think how many taste buds this barrel’s contents will touch.

How is Bourbon made?

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