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How Fire-Charred Whiskey Barrels are Made

The Adirondack Barrel Cooperage toasts all of their barrels using “The Dragon”

“There’s a discrepancy between coopers and distillers of how much flavor comes from the barrel and how much comes from the actual distilling process,” says Adirondack Barrel Cooperage co-owner Joe Blazosky.

“We think it’s around 80 percent of the flavor. But...we’re the coopers,” he laughs.

Prohibition severely hurt the whiskey and bourbon barrel-making industry in the Northeast. Noticing a lingering demand for quality spirit barrels in and around Remsen, New York, husband and wife team Joe and Kelly Blazosky decided to set up their own cooperage.

It all starts with the wood. Adirondack Barrel Cooperage receives American oak wood from Missouri, and ages it two to five years. Joe explains that Missouri wood imparts some of the best flavors in the U.S. into spirits, because of the area’s heavy rain and snow, which washes out tannins. This type of wood is mostly impervious, therefore good at sealing out water.

The wood is hand-placed into a machine that shapes each slat into the correct shape with specific angles so that the wood will fit together around the diameter of the barrel. It’s then placed in a ring called a mise en rose, and metal rings are placed around them to help them keep their shape.

Next comes the heating and charring process. The barrels need to be heated in order to make it pliable enough to bed. The Adirondack Barrel Cooperage is among the few cooperages in the country that uses actual fire in this process, as opposed to steam. It’s also the only company in the U.S. that uses a charring and toasting machine lovingly dubbed “The Dragon.” Designed in Scotland, the machine consistently toast the inside of their barrels by bursting it into flames. Toasting the inside starts the caramelization process, which allows for the barrels to impart complex flavors in spirits, like smoke, coconut, vanilla, caramel.

The barrel is cooled, a hole is drilled into the side and cauterized, and the bottom is sealed. The barrel gets sanded down, and then new, house-made hoops get added to them. Every barrel is then rinsed and checked for leaks, and sealed up to be shipped.

“Other cooperages that are large are machine driven and automated. I didn’t want to do that, I still wanted to be a cooper,” says Joe. “I love working with wood, always have. I’ve built million dollar homes but setting up a cooperage and creating these barrels was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

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