Forest to Flask
By Jen Rose Smith
Do you know a cooper? It’s a query more likely to produce confusion than an actual cooper–a barrel maker–as Caledonia Spirit’s Todd Hardie learned by putting the question to just about everyone. “For most of a year, each time I met someone, I’d say ‘hello, do you know a cooper?’ And they would say, ‘what’s a cooper?’”
Hardie was caught in the “Great Barrel Shortage of 2014,” an anachronistic-sounding crisis that developed as the craft distilling revival has outpaced the production of oak barrels used for aging spirits. A hundred years ago most towns had a cooperage that shaped whiskey casks, milk buckets and butter churns, but between prohibition and plastics, that exacting craft has dwindled. Along with Ryan Christiansen, Caledonia Spirit’s head distiller, Hardie had plans to turn fields of local grain into the kind of oaked whiskey that early Americans sipped, but first they needed a place to put it.
And since white oak is abundant in the forests of the Champlain Valley, Hardie and Christiansen were sure that if they could find a cooper, that they could try something that hasn’t been done for many years: age Vermont-made spirits in Vermont wood. They worked with a local forester to find a promising stand of white oak, and a family owned sawmill to process it. Then one day at the farmer’s market, a customer said: “I know a cooper!”
To Christiansen and Hardie, aging in Vermont wood is a natural extension of their distilling process, which starts with drums of unpasteurized honey or hoppers full of local grain, and is as much about agriculture as it is about alcohol. “There’s a direct line, a path, from the bees to the bottle,” said Ryan, “which is the opposite end of the spectrum from the spirits industry where there’s not a drop of honey.”
And as they worked to develop local rye and corn into whiskeys, they wanted to infuse the aged spirits with as much of Vermont’s terroir as possible. “Most of what you taste while drinking bourbon are wood oils,” says Christiansen, “so where and how that wood grows is going to influence the flavor.”
Because whiskey marries grain with oak in a process that yields a vast range of aromas and flavors. Every oak barrel is roasted, and charred by the cooperage. Charring creates a layer of activated charcoal, which clarifies and filters the spirit as it circulates through the barrel. And roasting, which takes place over many hours, breaks the chemical bonds in the wood’s lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose into molecules with familiar aromas: think vanilla, caramel, smoke, and coffee, elements many whiskey aficionados seek out.
The farmer’s market tip led them two hours outside of Vermont, to Bob Hockert’s small cooperage in the Adirondacks that is the last in the Northeast. He learned his craft through books and lots of practice, and when Hardie contacted him with an idea to make whiskey that was entirely regionally sourced, Hockert was intrigued. “It’s a very unusual project,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone who’s doing something similar, because most cooperages don’t wander out into the woods, cut trees down, and saw them up to make barrels.”
So Hockert quickly found himself in a Champlain valley forest with Hardie, Christiansen and forester Joe Nelson, selecting trees by hand, looking for wood unmarred by insect bores, knots and other irregularities. “The oak used in manufacturing a barrel has to be handled, cut, and selected just so,” Hockert explained, “and the modern lumber industry is not used to the parameters that a cooperage needs.” The wood is hand selected, air dried for up to a year, and quarter sawn, a cut that orients the wood fibers to make the finished barrel as water tight as possible. Even if Hardie and Hockert wanted to buy commercial lumber it would be a challenge, as most wood is kiln dried then sorted, and a small cooperage isn’t significant enough to circumvent the streamlined process.
There are deep similarities between the challenges that face small distillers and coopers, as each explore half-forgotten crafts that many early New Englanders would have taken for granted. Hardie and Ryan work to ferment their honey and grains using natural yeasts that cling to plants and infuse the air. They’ve learned a flexible approach that anticipates unpredictability.
Hockert’s craft also requires transforming highly variable materials into a precisely wrought product, and it is a learning process that he believes will last throughout his lifetime. Even so, he worries that books and practice may never recover all of the craft of coopering. “What may be lost to time is the knowledge of wood. At the turn of the century, every town had a cooper, and that person knew wood, its physiology and how to manipulate it. They understood it at a very intrinsic, very deep level, and it’s hard to find people like that.”
But some of what is lost can be recovered, with a bit of patience. Early Vermonters may have known the taste of their own oak trees, and we can too, in about two years. Hardie and Christiansen don’t know how the local wood will affect the final taste, but they’re confident that each step matters. As a beekeeper, Hardie says, “I learned that how you take care of bees, how you take care of employees, makes it into every jar of honey. By consciously logging, we’re able to be a distillery that manages every step of the process. The only thing we know is that it will be different.”
In a loft that overlooks the distilling room at Caledonia spirits, barrels are carefully stacked and labeled with batch numbers, grain content, and dates. A lingering smell of beeswax mingles with the yeasty tang of fermentation, and shelves are crowded with dozens of experimental bottles drawn off and labeled with tape. It’s a testimony to the complexity of the process, as harvests are transformed into spirits, with flavors that mingle the essence of Vermont’s forests and fields. Down below, Ryan Christian looks at the shiny vats, and offers another telling distillation. “It’s a challenge,” he acknowledges, “but simplicity is not what we’re about.”
Sidebar: How Bob Hockert builds a barrel.
1. Find and mill a perfect white oak tree then air-dry it for one year.
2. Cut into strips, then staves, which must be both beveled and bowed.
3. “Raise the barrel.” Bind one end, then use heat and water to soften the wood. Steam the staves again before placing them in a “trusser,” a windlass that winches the second end together.
4. Let dry, then warm the barrel to begin the roasting process.
5. Light it on fire! Hockert uses a propane flame thrower to ignite the barrels, which are allowed to burn to the specifications of the distiller, from #1, a light smolder, to #5, the “alligator char,” with blistered, buckling wood.
6. Machine the end of the barrel, coat with beeswax, and insert the round “heads.”
7. Drive metal hoops onto the completed barrel, which is made without glue or nails.