Over a barrel: Ky bourbon distiller temporarily scales back operations

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by Joe Arnold

WHAS11.com

Posted on December 9, 2013 at 7:59 PM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 10 at 12:21 AM

LAWRENCEBURG, Ky (WHAS11) -- A shortage of bourbon barrels is prompting at least one Kentucky distiller to scale back operations after considering temporary layoffs.

"We thought we might have to shut down the distillery," said Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller at Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg.  "We worked around that.  We didn't want to lay off employees during the holiday season."

According to a company spokeswoman, Four Roses has 56 employees, 29 in the distillery and 27 others in administration and guest services.

Citing lumber harvesting difficulties at the distillery's barrel supplier, an internal memo posted at Four Roses late last week warned that the distillery would be "forced to stop production and shut the distillery operations down until Monday, December 30."

Rutledge told WHAS11 on Monday the distillery decided instead to slow daily production capacity during the barrel shortage, avoid layoffs and make up missed production at the end of the distillery season in June and July.

Other distilleries which use Independent Stave Company's barrels include Sazerac, Beam Global Spirits, Diageo and Heaven Hill, according to the company's website.  Independent Stave operates cooperages in Lebanon, Kentucky, and Lebanon, Missouri.  WHAS11's attempts to obtain comments from other affected distillers were unsuccessful.

An Independent Stave Company spokeswoman, Teri Smith, confirmed Rutledge's account of the barrel shortage.  Rutledge explained that abnormally wet October weather in Missouri and Arkansas has since complicated the availability of the white oak lumber specifically required for bourbon production.  

"The heavy equipment that is required to get into the logging fields where the trees are being felled... are taken out, it's really an issue with the loggers they couldn't get their equipment in," Rutledge said.  "And it's an industry wide situation. We definitely have plenty of white oak trees.  It's definitely not a shortage of white oak trees.  It was just the ability to get to them to cut the trees to make the barrels."

Rutledge said the distillery, which averages the production of 285 barrels of bourbon each day, is short "somewhere between 2000 to 2500 barrels," enough to supply eight days of Four Roses distilling.

Yet Rutledge described the disruption as a "hiccup" and "bump in the road."

To qualify as "bourbon," a distilled spirit has to meet a number of federally mandated criteria, including being made of a grain mix at least 51 percent corn and being aged in new, charred white oak barrels.

"100 percent of the flavor of bourbon is natural," Rutledge explained.  "The color is 100 percent from the charring of the barrel.  About two-thirds of the flavor of the bourbon that gets into a bottle is generated through the white oak, the sugars in the white oak, natural sugars."

"It's the long standing traditions that we will continue to maintain forever," he added.

Other spirits, such as scotch, can be aged in a previously used barrel.  As a result, larger distilleries which make a variety of products may be able to more easily adjust to the barrel shortage, Rutledge said.
 
The shortage also reflects the increasing demands on distillery suppliers as bourbon enjoys unprecedented, sustained growth.

"I've never seen anything like what's been happening in our industry in the last few years," Rutledge said.

Another local distiller, Brown-Forman, owns its own cooperage in Louisville which manufactures charred white oak barrels exclusively for Brown-Forman.  The company's second cooperage is set to open next year in Alabama, presumably to supply barrels for the Jack Daniels distillery in nearby Lynchburg, Tennessee.

A legendary name in bourbon, Four Roses was resurrected as a domestic bourbon in the 1990's after decades of being manufactured for export.  The 1910 distillery in Lawrenceburg is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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