- Associated Press - Sunday, December 3, 2017

BAMBERG, S.C. (AP) - The sound of hammers banging and machines humming fills the workshop of Bamberg’s Black Water Barrels.

Some employees are busy working the wood through the milling process while others can been seen putting round hoops on the barrels.

A little further down, the interior of a 53-gallon barrel catches fire at the charring station, helping to prime the wood so the vessel can hold bourbon.

“There is no glue or nails in the barrels,” company president Greg Pierce said, explaining the manufacturing process. “It is all pressure. These staves are made to fit like a glove. They are pressurized, and the hoops are put on the barrel.”

The slight smell of burned wood pervades the warehouse as barrels are neatly lined up for the next journey of what is a 17-step process to prepare the barrels for market.

“We make about 100 a day,” Pierce said. “It depends on when the orders come in.”

This adds up to about 30,000 barrels a year, 90 percent of which are used for the distilling of bourbon in the United States, but also internationally in countries including as Austria, Chile, Germany and Japan.

“We have over 300 customers in the U.S. and overseas,” Pierce said. “Most of them are craft distilleries.”

But the Southeast is the Black Water Barrels’ largest market.

“There was an influx of moonshiners several years ago,” Pierce said. “There are all these moonshiners out there. Basically, there is a glut of clear alcohol. All alcohol is clear and you get it brown by putting it in a charred barrel.”

Clear alcohol in a charred barrel ends up becoming bourbon “if there is at least 51 percent corn” in it, he said.

The cooperage, which located in Bamberg in September 2016 with the help of Bamberg native and former Gov. Nikki Haley, has flourished since its opening.

The company employs about 23 people and has invested more than $3.6 million in the former Zeigler automotive dealership, utilizing about 20,000-square-feet of that space.

But Pierce says growth is on the way.

“As we get new contracts in, we will fill a second and third shift, which we are considering doing after the first of year,” he said, noting the company owns about seven acres and may need to add additional facility space. He says the growth could mean an additional 50 to 60 jobs.

The reason for the expected expansion?

The company is looking to pick up a contract with Charleston-based Terressentia Corporation, which owns and operates the O.Z. Tyler Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky.

“This group in Kentucky is in the motherland of bourbon,” Pierce said. “There are only eight companies on the Bourbon Trail, and this company is on the Bourbon Trail. That kind of sets us apart from a lot of people.”

He says Terressentia Corporation produces about 75,000 barrels a year, of which he is hoping Black Water picks up about 5,000 to 10,000 barrels. It would be the company’s largest customer.

“This would be a third of our capacity,” Pierce said. “That puts us in a position that very few are fortunate to be in. Most cooperages are 100 to 150 years old. We are 2 years old. This is a very big deal for us.”

The company is also seeking other “anchor customers” and is in trial runs with the likes of Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Four Roses and Cuervo.

The industry is extremely competitive, said Pierce, noting the hardest thing about making a barrel is to “convince people you can make a good barrel.”

“There have been so many people in the past who said they made good barrels but they don’t, so people are gun shy,” he said.

Pierce said Black Water sends their barrels to potential customers and those companies take the barrels apart to determine whether or not they will purchase them.

“They look at the thickness of the rings, they look at the type of wood, they look at the char levels,” he said. “There is a lot of due diligence that goes into whether or not you do or you don’t make a great barrel. If they are off on anything, they reject it. We have been pretty fortunate in the past.”

Making the “right barrel” is not as easy as it looks. The process doesn’t begin in Bamberg. It begins in the Appalachians.

The wood for the barrels, American white oak, is cut from land owned by Black Water in the mountains of North Carolina all the way to Missouri.

“We have to have a very tight grain so it does not leak,” Pierce said. “The only thing that causes a tight grain in wood is if it gets extremely cold and extremely hot.”

He said the distance between extreme temperatures is what helps wood become ideal for whiskey barrels. The company makes three barrel sizes 30-, 53- and 60-gallon barrels for wine, tequila, rum and gin. Each barrel weighs about 135 pounds.

The wood is hauled to the company’s staving mill in Nebo, North Carolina.

“They debark the logs and they grade them to see if they fit our criteria,” Pierce said. “They cut them in staves, which are 2 to 4 inches wide, 1-1/4 inch thick and 36 inches long, and they ship them to us.”

Workers read the white oak’s medullary rays, which are large bands of radial cells emanating from the center of the log.

The wood is cut into boards with growth rings roughly perpendicular to the face of the board. The pores found in red oak can be porous, but with white oak, the pores are plugged with a plastic-like substance called “tyloses.” The substance makes the wood ideal for creating a watertight vessel.

The products are typically brought in by six different trucking companies engaged by Black Water. About 2.5 million board feet are shipped to the company annually.

“From there, they air dry them for about a year,” Pierce said.

The first step in barrel making is the milling process, which entails the shaping and molding of the barrels. The process includes tapering the staves in order to create the rounded barrel.

“We raise the barrel and put it in a steam room for an hour, where the wood has to get soft and wet,” Pierce said. “Then you winch it in. That is where we fit the body of the barrel together and put a hoop on the bottom.”

The barrel then goes through the charring process.

“It brings out all the sugars and burns the inside of the barrel so the liquid hits it,” Pierce said. “It not only turns it (the liquid) brown, but it caramelizes it when you have an interaction with the wood.”

He said charring typically enables the liquid to go in and out of the wood about an eighth of an inch, creating the unique taste.

There are about five different charring settings for barrels that can all impact the eventual taste of the bourbon, Pierce said.

“Some people like one char or two char and some like five char, which is blistering,” he said. “Within a few moments, it will turn the product from a pure white to a very dark brown.”

But Pierce says a barrel is “just half the process” when it comes to how liquor tastes.

“You have to have good liquor,” he said. “You can’t put crappy liquor in a barrel and think my barrel is going to make my liquor taste good.”

While it’s true that good wood is needed for the barrels, how liquor is stored can also make a big difference, Pierce said.

“The temperature will make that wood contract, and it plays with the liquid,” he said. “They call it ‘messaging,’ and the temperature has everything, really, to do with how it will taste.”

Another key to how liquor will taste is the content of the liquor itself, Pierce noted.

“The more wheat, the sweeter it (bourbon) is going to be,” he said. “If you have a lot of rye, it will have more of a pepper taste to it.”

There are 17 pieces of equipment that go into making a barrel, Pierce said. The machines are from Germany and Scotland and are designed by Anthon and Schoolhill Engineering.

“They make the best,” Pierce said. “There are only about three people who make it. We bought the most expensive equipment. We bought the Lamborghini of equipment so the parts cost like a Lamborghini, too.”

“(The barrels) are pressure tested,” he said. “They are filled with x amount of water and x amount of air pressure, then they force the water through the barrels to see if they leak.”

Pierce said the barrels do not leave the facility if they leak.

“But if you leave a barrel and set it out for a period of time, it is going to leak,” he said. “It will dry up and dehydrate.”

In order to ensure this does not happen, the company makes the barrels to fit a specific order, Pierce said.

“We make them today and ship them tomorrow,” he said. “You have about two weeks to get something in the barrels.”

From the Black Water facility, the barrels are shipped by truck or through the Port of Charleston.

Pierce said the early days of the company did prove to be a challenge as a result of some equipment issues. Now, the barrels are topnotch, he said, crediting the training his employees have received.

“There are no coopers in Bamberg. So, we hired a fourth-generation cooper from Switizerland for months (who) trained our folks,” he said.

Another operated a Napa Valley cooperage, Demptos Napa Cooperage, and Mendocino Cooperage.

“We would not be in business without them,” Pierce said.

The idea of building a cooperage came from Pierce, who realized through his 25 years of industry experience that there was a significant and growing need for additional oak barrels in the spirits industry.

Through his work in the industry, he was constantly asked, “Do you know where we can get barrels?”, by distillers all over the Americas.

Working with his friend, Dan Addison, the idea of the company started to take life in 2014, Pierce said. With Addison’s passion for wood and woodworking and Pierce’s passion for the spirits industry as a whole, and cooperages in particular, the idea became a dream and the dream became a reality — Black Water Barrels.

The company is named for the slow, gentle black waters of the Edisto River that meander through Bamberg County on its trek to the Atlantic.

Pierce says the future looks bright for Black Water Barrels.

“Bourbon is growing about 9 percent a year, and they are looking at a 10-year run,” he said. “It is not going to slow up.”

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