Bourbon experiences abound in the Bluegrass. You can go to a handful of distilleries on Main Street in Downtown Louisville alone, never mind the dozens across the rest of the state. Every space has it’s own unique personality and focus. They celebrate the story of the individual brands, the people behind them, their product differentials, and all tip a hat to being part of the bigger picture of bourbon heritage in Kentucky.
That being said, not all experiences are created equal, just like not all products are top shelf. Some differentials make brands stand out among their peers.
One distillery group that stands out is Brown-Forman, the producers of the fine bourbon brands Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Cooper’s Craft, along with many other spirits including Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Early Times!
So what makes them different?
Since 1945 they are the only major distillery IN THE WORLD that has their own cooperage for producing the barrels that will hold their bourbon, whiskey and tequila products!
We took a trip to the Louisville B-F Cooperage location near the airport for a tour to see this special process first hand!
Our guide, Zoie Wilson, came to B-F Cooperage from the Kentucky Derby Museum, tasked with helping develop the guest experience to share the process of barrel-making with bourbon lovers living in and visiting Louisville! Cool job, right?!
She walked us through, carefully explaining each aspect of production, proudly sharing the commitment to excellence that sets Brown-Forman apart from its peers. We were impressed with the smooth operation of the facility, especially after learning that there is less than 1% waste heading to landfills throughout the process.
It is fascinating to watch the coopers transform wood planks from raw material into carefully shaped containers. In short, wood is cut into staves, raised into a starter ring, toasted and then charred on the inside to the specification of the spirit that it will hold. Then the staves are bound together with permanent iron rings, equally charred barrel heads are added, a bung hold is cut, and each barrel is pressure tested for leaks and repaired by a master cooper as needed before leaving the facility for filling. There’s a lot more to it than that, but you’ll have to take the tour to see it all in action!
B-F Cooperage raises more than 1500 barrels per day over the course of two shifts, with a third shift being daily maintenance only. All production shuts down for at least two weeks every fall to be sure that equipment can be serviced and stay in top shape for operations throughout the year.
All cooperage employees are very well taken care of, especially in the hot months. Brown-Forman has fresh fruit and water delivered to the men and women working in the hot space several times a day, making sure that all coopers stay fresh, focused and safe. It’s such a great place to work that we witnessed one master cooper counting down the days to the end of a 50 year career, excited to celebrate his contribution to the industry. Congrats, Charlie!
We highly recommend a trip to the B-F Cooperage for your next bourbon excursion! You can see a smaller scale version of barrel making at the Old Forester Distillery on Whiskey Row, too! Thank you to Zoie & Cooper’s Craft National Brand Ambassador Fitz Bailey for showing us around and helping us grasp the artistry of the process of raising what is arguably the most important ingredient in the making of our native spirit!
You can book a tour through Mint Julep Tours or by calling (502) 583-1433. Hours vary based on production schedules.