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Barreling Through the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage

June 16, 2021

I never miss an opportunity to visit historical museums or villages set up to recreate bygone days. Seeing people dressed in antiquated clothing performing essential tasks with obsolete tools is not an experience I scoff at, rather I find I’m reflecting on the great advancements made over the short decades behind me.

Last week, our team traveled southwest to Atkins, Virginia to visit the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage—one of Reservoir’s highly esteemed barrel makers. And it was here we all had the privilege to meet Josh Chandler, Speyside’s plant manager and tour guide extraordinaire. And it was also here that we were educated as to just how advanced the coopering industry has grown since the days when highly skilled craftsmen practiced the trade by hand.

We here at Reservoir impress upon our customers the strength and influence of provenance, as all our ingredients—i.e., anything that influences our flavor—comes right from our little patch of earth. Virginia has a singular taste, and we capture every drop, scent, and organic compound that allows us to say our whiskeys’ flavors are “terroir-driven.”

A significant part of that distinctively place-based flavor comes from the organic compounds deep within the wood of each barrel, as the staves that comprise a five, ten, or a 53-gallon barrel are rich with lignins, which break down into vanillin, eugenol, furfural, and lactones—all flavor molecules that give our spirits their spicy, fruity, nutty, and buttery profiles. And as the majority of trees Speyside Cooperage utilizes come from Virginia forestland, we grow increasingly enthusiastic to share what we now recognize as true Virginia bourbon flavor.

We pride ourselves on highlighting Reservoir’s unique process of ‘grain to glass’ whiskey making, but we’d be remiss if we did not back farther up—a step or two behind where that timeline begins. I’ve written before about one of our stave mills—The Ramoneda Brothers in Culpeper, Virginia—and Speyside operates several of their own mills as well, but I’ve yet to take you on a tour of how our barrels are assembled. It’s an eye-opening peek into a marvelous carpentry journey you shouldn’t miss.

Founded in Scotland in 1947, the Speyside cooperage has impressive lineage, coming from a long line of traditional and highly skilled barrel makers. Estimates of remaining coopers worldwide are around 1,500—2,000.

And for as lovely the venerable and time-honored practice of coopering by hand is, where barrel makers apprenticed for approximately seven years before being capable of raising seven casks a day, Speyside has applied, in their words, “state of the art technology and modern manufacturing principles to the age-old craft of barrel making.”

Here in Virginia, those new design principles allow them to utilize equipment safer for the environment and their employees, use less energy than older manufacturing processes would require, create less waste and pollutants, and build stronger, better barrels than ever before.

Not only are the barrels they produce casks of the highest quality, but the company concentrates on their overall footprint left behind after manufacturing their product. Speyside has been recognized for their sustainable log buying practices, and every scrap of byproducts is either sold to other manufacturers or utilized inhouse via recycling techniques.

So, we here at Reservoir feel fortunate not only to partner with a company whose gilt-edged product helps to make our whiskies shine with a depth and breadth of flavor we’re determined to offer our customers, but also because their level of standards resonate deeply with ours: Offer the world the best you have.

And there you have it. Another glimpse into our process. I hope it will serve to educate, entertain, but more important, enrich your next sip of whiskey. Let’s all raise a glass to these men and women of great skill. Because they’re building better barrels, we’re bottling beautiful bourbons!

~ Shelley Sackier - Director of Distillery Education