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Bourbon Trail Background: Independent Stave Company's, Kentucky Cooperage tour

Posted on by Eric Burke

Independent Stave Company. If you are a Bourbon geek like I am, you've probably heard of this company. They are one of only a handful of companies across the country that make the barrels that all that tasty bourbon ages in. In fact, almost every major producer of bourbon along the Bourbon trail uses the barrels from this one company. I learned about them on my first pass along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And once I saw that they offered tours, I knew I needed to get myself on one the next time I was in Kentucky.

It's about 9:00 when we roll into Lebanon, KY home of Independent Stave Company. Tour starts at 9:30 sharp. We are early. To pass the time until our tour starts, we drive around the small town for a bit. Pretty town, but there is a strange dust floating on the wind. It's not until we get back to the visitor parking lot that we realize that it's sawdust. 

We walk up to the building and enter what looks to be the break room. There is another couple already sitting in the little roped off area near the door. No one else is there so we take our seats there too. At just about 9:30 a gentleman walks over and tells us we are going to watch a video and plays it for us. 

As you might have guessed, this is our tour guide. 

After the video, he hands us safety glasses and hearing protection if we want them and leads us into the plant. Inside the work area, there is a set of risers behind a metal railing. We all step up onto that to...watch another video. This time due to the noise, there is no sound. It sounds bad, but for safety issues, there is no way we are going to be allowed to get close to the folks working. I actually like it, it has captions that tell what all the precesses you can see from there are called. After the video we get a demonstration of a barrel raising. Barrel raising is an art. A lot of decisions need to be made for every barrel in order to make sure it stays water tight when it is finished. You need to meet a minimum number of staves, but not go over a maximum number. And when you are finished, you need to meet a very tight tolerance for the circumference or it might leak. Yeah, these guys are good.

The next stop is the one that everyone who's even thought of the tour is waiting for. This is where we get to see the fire. In between where we watched the barrel raising and where we were standing, the barrels had been steamed, formed and had a temporary band placed on them. As we pretended to watch the video, we all watched the charring. This is where the barrel rides a conveyor to a barrel-end sized nozzle and then a natural gas fire is shot and sucked through the barrel for 40 or 55 seconds. 

It is so cool! Oh and we were informed that no matter what the distillery tour say, they all use either 40 or 55 seconds (number 3 or 4 char). I found that very interesting.

The final stop on tour is one that I found very surprising. It's where they repair the barrels they just made. They tell us that roughly 20% of the newly made barrels will need to be repaired. A cooper quickly takes the barrel apart and pulls out the bad stave, matches it with a stack of staves that are piled nearby, puts the new one back in and puts it back together, sealing the seams with cat tails (the marsh plant not the kitty's hind end). Nature's silicone he called it. 

Then it was done. We gave back our safety glasses, shook hands and walked out. That's it. It's a short tour, but very interesting. I liked this tour a lot. I wish it was longer and that you had a little more time to watch what was happening. The videos were on a large screen that obscured much of the process. You only saw certain parts of it. But the parts you saw were the parts most people would want to see. If you love bourbon or are planning to visit Maker's Mark, plan to stop in to Independent Stave's Kentucky Cooperage. Tours are at 9:30 am and 1 pm sharp, Monday through Friday except on holidays.