A Visit to Kelvin Cooperage
After hitting the road to launch Bruery Terreux in New Orleans and Georgia, we made one more stop in the land of intensely warm and humid weather in Louisville, KY. The home of horses and bourbon has a hidden gem just a short drive away from downtown, but you need to be a customer to get an inside look at this family owned operation.
We’ve talked about Kelvin Cooperage in our past blogs on barrels, so it was a no-brainer to pay them a visit while in the area. At 9 AM the air’s already heavy and hot outside, no doubt something their 60 employees are used to. The building where barrels are made is not climate controlled, which presents its own set of unusual challenges when working with wood in three-digit heat during the summer, and single-digit cold during the winter.
Before entering the facility, rows of containers and trucks sit at the loading docks. As a cooperage that tackles all aspects of barrels — from construction to repair — the loading docks are where lots of barrels begin and end their journey, or are completely reincarnated. Some containers are heading off to sunny California, filled with a variety of wine barrels. Other trucks are dropping off used bourbon barrels that will be re-charred then sent overseas to Scotland to hold scotch whisky for tens of years. Another container from Canada is full of broken Canandian whisky barrels in need of repair. A pick up truck and trailer from a small, local craft distillery gets 30 brand new barrels loaded on in a matter of minutes before heading back to downtown Louisville.
Beyond the trucks are pallets upon pallets of oak planks, yet to be turned into staves for barrel construction. These pallets fill a good portion of their 9 acre lot and will move quickly, soon to be replaced with even more oak planks or broken barrels. Once inside the 70,000 square foot warehouse, senses are overwhelmed. The aroma of sawdust and warm, toasted oak hits first, coupled with the sounds of sawing, grinding, hammering, crackling. There’s yet another sea of pallets and wood, more barrels of every shape and size, metal hoops, orphaned staves, and scraps of oak that will be used to fuel the wood-burning fires that char their barrels. Craftsmen are constantly moving about, effortlessly lifting 100 lb barrels from their work station onto the next. It might take one person about 8 hours to make a barrel on their own, but at this facility a staff of 55 craftsmen make about 300 barrels in a day.
The company runs a tight operation, with staff working overtime to keep up with demand. They’ve been steadily doubling production, a feat that’s been made possible thanks in part to the growth of both the craft distilling and craft beer industries. Barrel purchases by craft breweries still make up a very small percentage of Kelvin’s customers, which are primarily scotch whisky distillers. That’s no surprise, since Kelvin Cooperage was started by Ed McLaughlin over 40 years ago in Scotland. The company opened its Kentucky facility in 1991, which proved a smart move given their proximity to bourbon country. Present day, it’s still a family-owned business run by Ed’s sons Kevin and Paul, with the help of William Hornaday.
Kelvin Cooperage is not open for public tours, but as a customer we were able to take a look inside. Big thanks to Ed, Paul, and William for showing us around the facility.