Craft Culture: Handcrafted barrels from Black Swan Cooperage

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Raising rings hold the barrels together as they’re being made // Photo by Sarah Miller

Whether traditional, cross-grooved, or honeycombed, every stave’s ultimate destination is into a barrel. Approximately 21 staves are used per 15-gallon barrel, and piecing them together—called raising—is a fast-paced balancing act that looks like a scene from Cirque du Soleil: individual entities coming together to create a new, collective whole.

A word about raising rings: Although they take backstage to the staves in terms of a barrel’s ultimate appeal, the heavy steel rings are crucial to a barrel’s integrity and uniformity. From the time the first stave is clamped onto the raising ring, with the other 20 soon to follow, the rings do the hard work of holding together the staves as they endure hot-water treatment, unnatural bending, and exposure to fire. They’re unseen in the final product, replaced by shinier, lighter hoops made of galvanized steel, but their importance cannot be stressed enough.

After raising comes a 15-minute bath in 160-degree water. This step is crucial, explains Heidi. “There are four ways to bend wood: water, steam, fire, and dry,” she says. “We use water because it leaches out the tannic acid in the wood, making is easier to bend together and leaving us with a sweeter-tasting barrel.” It’s this sweetness that craft distillers seek and have come to expect from Black Swan.

Soft from soaking, the staves are ready for the barrel winder. After binding a thick metal coil around the end of the barrel not held together by a ring, the cooper cranks the staves together with the winder—a winch off of a 1949 wrecker tow truck—until another ring can be added. A trip to the ring-presser for two more rings follows, until four thick circles hug the blonde-wood cylinders.

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Photo by Sarah Miller

The next two steps—toasting and charring—encompass yet another area in which Black Swan differs from other barrel makers: While all cooperages char their barrels, not all toast them. “Exposing the wood to indirect heat for one to two hours makes it sweeter,” Heidi explains. “Usually, barrel-makers only do this for wine barrels. We do it for all our barrels.”

The indirect flames used for toasting are nothing compared to those needed to singe the barrels to the perfect char level. (There are five char levels: one being the least, five the most. Black Swan’s “house char” is a level three.) For charring, barrels are placed over piles of white oak chips that are lit on fire and blasted with compressed air for 30–45 seconds. A tornado of flames consumes the barrel from the inside, leaping out from the top and seeping out of the bottom, leaving it black and smelling of flash-burnt marshmallow.

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Black Swan 12 Toasted and charred, the barrel next goes to get its croze: a groove carved into the inside of both ends of the barrel by a crozer machine. The groove is where the barrel heads will eventually be placed, held in place by a mixture of sawdust, flour, and water—the only form of binding used in Black Swan barrels. Newly crozed, it’s time for heading and hoops.

“Heading up” involves a delicate dance of loosening the raising rings enough to allow the staves to temporarily part so the cooper can insert the head into the croze, but not so much that the barrel falls apart. Once the head is in place, a hoop quickly replaces the raising ring and the barrel is flipped over to be headed up on the other side. Four more hoops join the initial two, then all six are screwed into place.

Only the finishing touches remain: drilling and searing the bung hole, water testing, sanding the head, and stamping each new barrel with a Black Swan logo. From there, the barrel is ready go.

Black Swan has shipped barrels to all 50 states. They’re currently booked into 2017, with a lead time of 12–15 months for new orders. That’s both an encouragement and a frustration for Heidi and Russ. “We’re enduring growing pains right now, but have plans for how to get through them,” Heidi says. They’re hoping to hire a few more employees soon, and increase their daily barrel output from around 40 to 100. Heidi also recently purchased 10 acres surrounding the cooperage for future expansions.

It’s all part of a larger vision, one that takes into consideration both the 600-plus craft distilleries currently operating in the U.S. (and at least 200 in the planning) as well as the rapidly depleting American white oak population. While neither Heidi nor Russ would go on the record with the details of their plan, their combined foresight, creativity, and dedication to producing high-quality products all but guarantee a bright future for this soaring cooperage.

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About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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