After witnessing Kevin "The Barrel Man" Sanders talk about his job constructing barrels for Jack at Jack Daniel's Motel 7, we decided to take a more in-depth look into the process ourselves. And believe it or not, the wooden barrels which store whiskey during its aging process account for most of its flavors -- kind of like how some people think their favorite mugs make coffee taste better… except that this is a fact grounded in reality. Jack Daniel’s uses some of the most painstaking scrutiny to make its whiskey vessels. Here’s what it takes.
1. Get yourself some fresh-cut White American Oak
Wood is sourced from around the country and sent on an all-expense paid trip to the Brown-Forman (the company that owns Jack Daniel’s) cooperage facility, where they make the barrels on site. FYI for any extremely ambitious lumber thieves: There’s at least $30 million worth of wood in the cooperage at one time.
2. The newly-cut wood needs to dry out
Think of the drying process as lumber’s version of a juice cleanse. The newly-milled wood is bloated with water and needs at least about a year to be properly dried out and ready for a barrel transformation.
3. The wood is exposed to the elements to help enhance the flavor
Think the wood is chilling in some storehouse? Nope. Six to nine months of aging is done outside in the elements, which is like that time you went camping and Tim forgot the tent. This helps stabilize the bitter tannic acid in the wood, which helps smooth out the final product by adding color as well as notes of fruit and spice.
4. After the great outdoors, the wood is stacked in a giant hot box
Before the barrels take shape, the wood needs to finish its drying process by being exposed to hot hot heat. They achieve that by putting it in a giant warehouse-sized kiln.
5. After the drying year (movie title?), the wooden planks get a makeover
Cue the mid-aughts rom-com makeover montage music. This is the part of the process where the planks are shaped into the staves that make up the body of the barrel, while the lids are made by pinning planks together and cutting them into a sphere.
6. A real human being fits it all together -- not a machine
Each stave is fitted by a living, breathing person instead of a soulless, job-stealing robot at the Raising Station. This is a pretty important part because the workers ensure that the barrels are watertight and secure.
7. Next comes the toast -- a Jack Daniel’s signature move
Next, these things are toasted at 450 degrees Fahrenheit to break down the vanillins in the wood, which are then released into the whiskey which help give flavor. Jack Daniel’s is one of the few that toasts the barrels before...
8. They’re casually set on fire
The charring process is pretty intense. The open barrels are put on a gas burner and straight up put to flame. With temperatures reaching as high as 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, the sugar in the wood is caramelized, adding another note of flavor into the whiskey, while also allowing it to more easily seep into the barrel. All of this happens in about 30 seconds.
9. The barrels are sealed, and open sesame is four years away
The heads (or lids), which have been charred separately, are now affixed to the ends of the barrels, then...
10. A little opening is made in the barrel to ensure no whiskey leaks later
And it’s called a bunghole. (Stop it.) The barrel is filled with water first to test it before the spirit goes in.
11. Mother Nature pulls in a shift at the facility
The barrels are sent to the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, TN to begin the aging process. While the spirit begins its four-year aging process in the barrels, the vessels themselves are kept in wooden barns that have no heating or cooling systems in place. Tennessee’s natural weather patterns become an ingredient, causing the necessary expansion and contraction as time passes and seasons change from hot to cold and back again. Whiskey seeps into the wood and the liquid dissolves tannins and caramelized sugars. Upon contraction, the whiskey moves back into the barrel with a ton more flavor.
12. A barrel is only used once -- for Jack Daniel’s, that is
But they are sold to companies in Scotland, for Scotch-making purposes, to breweries for beer, and to the hipster down the street for his homemade bicycle seat.