West Virginia Great Barrel Company introduces a winning mix of craftsmanship and technology.
Ask Brett Wolfington about West Virginia Great Barrel Company, and he doesn’t hesitate: “We manufacture the highest-quality whiskey barrels in the world.” That’s a bold bit of braggadocio for a company that got its start in a centuries-old industry little over a year ago.
Plus, how would you even measure that?
“Our customers measure quality in a couple different ways,” Wolfington says, totally ready for that question, too. Those two ways are based on the two jobs a whiskey barrel has to do: hold the whiskey, and flavor the whiskey. Holding it—check. West Virginia Great Barrel Company’s measured leak rates are extremely low, and customers say they’re the soundest barrels they’ve ever used.
As for flavoring it, “Product matured in our barrels is still maturing—but early comparison taste tests have given extraordinary results.” A large Kentucky distillery recently sampled from a WVGBC barrel and from a competitor’s barrel that had aged much longer, he says, and, in a blind tasting, the WVGBC-aging product won. “Our barrel is made with a variety of features that we think help develop more flavor and perhaps do it faster.”
Two minutes into the conversation, you realize there’s more to whiskey barrels than you could have guessed—and WVGBC may have it figured out.
The company got its start when a group came together to rebuild homes in White Sulphur Springs after the June 2016 flood. They saw the need for meaningful economic development and wanted to build a business that would use West Virginia resources responsibly and create good jobs. Talking that Christmas with retired local architect Tom Crabtree, TAG Galyean lamented that Pernod Ricard, partner to his Smooth Ambler distillery, wanted to increase production, but barrels were in short supply. It was absurd, they commented, that wood harvested in West Virginia was sent elsewhere to be made into barrels, and Smooth Ambler then had to buy them from an out-of-state manufacturer. Aha! they realized: Whiskey barrels should be made here! Crabtree and Galyean partnered up with friends Tony Alexander, Phil Cornett, and others, and WVGBC was launched in 2019 at the Audrina Mill in Monroe County and a brand new cooperage in White Sulphur Springs.
WVGBC starts with white oak harvested within a 200-mile radius, most of it in West Virginia. And it’s special. “Appalachian trees grow at fairly high elevations, on steep slopes, in areas with poor soil,” Wolfington says. “As a result, they grow slowly—and that creates a tight-grained wood that is really beneficial to distillers, because the closer together the growth rings are, the better the whiskey can get down into the wood and pull back the sugars that are in there.”
Barrel staves milled in Monroe County are stacked and air-dried for 6 months to 3 years, then transferred to the cooperage, which combines the best of traditional and modern. “It’s clean, it’s well-lit,” Wolfington says. “All of our equipment is contained in safety enclosures, dust enclosures, and noise enclosures.” Robotics manage processes that are heavy or hot or precise, while craftsmen and -women handle the nuanced work: assembling the staves in the initial circle, for example, and inspecting every finished barrel.
One year in, WVGBC has customers across the U.S. and in Scotland, Japan, and beyond. It employs about 80 and, when it reaches its capacity of over 300,000 a year, could employ 150, create 200 jobs in the timber industry, and have a $50 million annual local impact, according to a Marshall University study.
When can we taste the result? “We’re probably looking at the first batch coming out in around three years,” Wolfington says. “It’s definitely going to be worth the wait, if early indications are any guide.”
Rounding it Up at WVGBC
West Virginia Great Barrel Company’s experience introducing an industry here that relies on a renewable West Virginia resource offers lessons.
Strategic investment can create a common-sense, viable new West Virginia industry. By adding value to West Virginia timber rather than sending it out of state, WVGBC is keeping tens of millions of dollars of productivity here at home.
Industry newcomers can bring valuable innovations. WVGBC leaders weren’t steeped in barrel-making convention and tradition. Their manufacturing design process questioned norms and demanded precision and safety. The result: A one-of-a-kind cooperage and rave customer reviews.
Good jobs draw good employees. “We’re paying wages that are far above average for the area and offering excellent benefits to people who haven’t always had that opportunity. The first 20 jobs we posted, we had 1,200 applicants,” WVGBC General Manager Brett Wolfington says. “We selected wonderful applicants who hopefully will be with us until they retire. There’s an abundance of great labor here.”
WVGBC’s coopering process
A skilled craftsperson chooses and arranges wide and narrow staves in a ring in the rough shape of the barrel.
A cone presses the staves into the barrel shape and puts a temporary hoop in place to keep them together.
Infrared heaters caramelize the wood sugars in the interior, bringing our flavor notes that can be replicated to custom specs.
Barrel interiors are hit with flame to ignite, then burned and quenched. Customers specify the char level 1 through 5.
A machine presses the permanent hoops down with even pressure all around. Barrel heads are installed in the same step.
Barrels are injected with pressurized air and water, and any leaks are corrected using traditional coopering techniques.