Visiting John Cox’s Quercus Cooperage in High Falls is like stepping into a combination Industrial Arts/World History class. He has a blackboard on one wall with chalk sketches illustrating the steps of putting together a barrel. He jumps into a detailed explanation of how each stave is cut, what his mathematical formula is for cutting them and why the craft has suddenly come out of obsolescence: It’s all about whiskey.
Cox, who made his living in custom cabinetry for two decades, came upon the cooper’s craft only a few years ago. He knows wood and is plenty adept at working with his two hands. When he learned of the dearth of barrels used in whiskey-making, he got curious. Whether it’s produced by a big outfit in Kentucky or a boutique distiller in Gardiner, whiskey must be aged in charred new oak barrels: this from a 1930s law enacted when the Coopers’ Union lobbied Congress to put standards on the books, declaring that whiskey-makers could not reuse their barrels.
Now, with ambitious spirits getting into the whiskey business up and down the State of New York – where the government is notably supportive of boutique alcoholic beverage production – the shortage of new barrels has created a market for a product that few craftsmen know anything about.
“I learned to be a cooper about three years ago, and I was lucky to buy most of these tools from a museum in Ottawa. I’d already had 25 years in the woodshop. My father was a tool-and-die-maker with his own shop; my grandfather had his own shop. I wasn’t a stranger to fabricating and jig work.”
He demonstrates a hand tool that shaves down the exterior edges of the staves. “Coopering is very distinctive in the woodworking world. It has its own set of tools. Somebody stood all day and did this motion. Part of my discovery was to figure out how to do all these angles and use these tools, which made for a long R-and-D. You can go online to figure out how to build an airplane or a wristwatch, but you cannot find out how to build a barrel,” he says.
He holds up a flagging iron, describes how to make a tapered bunghole plug, points to a planer from the 17th century, explains the method of shaping the “heads” and getting them in place. “Coopers had no motorized machinery; they had to do everything by hand. The head has to be watertight, using a tongue-and groove-compression joint. If I had four million dollars, I could be set up with state-of-the art machinery,” he says.
Instead, he’s doing it old-school, with a few mechanized tools. He is a walking encyclopedia of information, not only about the craft itself but also its long history. Cox says that when Caesar traipsed across Europe over 2,000 years ago, he dragged clay vessels of wine to keep his troops happy – until he met up with the Celts, who were already building barrels made of wood.
“For thousands of years, that’s how things were transported. It was maritime law that boats couldn’t travel without an on-board cooper. The cooper was a steward. The hold was full of food and water. You couldn’t just crack open a barrel, get what you needed and close it back up, possibly contaminating it with all the surrounding filth. And when a boat traveled to the Caribbean for spices, it would be laden with barrel staves. Then, when they got to Trinidad, the coopers would go to the beach and start building barrels.”
Cox is particularly intrigued with the local history of cooperage. American white oak is the ideal wood for barrelmaking (Quercus is the Latin name for the oak genus), and the Hudson Valley and Catskill regions were once covered in oak forests.
Traditionally crafted for either wet goods or dry goods, barrels made commerce possible. Everything was transported by barrel: salted fish, apples, nails, gunpowder, cement from Rosendale, flour from Rochester, blubber from the whaling industry, oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, fresh water for long voyages. In 1824 crude oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, and that too was traded in barrels. John D. Rockefeller had the largest cooperage in the US. “But when corrugated cardboard was invented in 1902, everything changed overnight,” says Cox. “Then Prohibition was the death knell for the industry. The need for barrels died out after that.”
And so did the oral tradition of the craft.
Through reverse engineering, Cox learned how to bilge-cut and join angled staves from quartersawn white oak. He works with steam to soften the staves just enough to be able to winch the galvanized steel bands into place using no glue, nails or screws. “Then I take it outside to ‘toast’ it, hardening that lignin, and char it with a small pile of burning sawdust. By introducing compressed air out of an air hose, I create a vortex, a tornado of flame inside the barrel for 30 seconds, at 1,300 degrees. It’s pretty dramatic.”
The distinct flavoring caused by the toasting and charring processes gives American-made whiskeys their unique taste. Although distillers can’t reuse their barrels, they can sell them to beermakers for “bourbon-barreled beer.” And other countries don’t have the same regulations as we do, so distillers in Canada, Scotland and the rest of Europe can purchase our secondhand barrels.
There are currently approximately 150 distilleries in New York State alone, Cox says. “Three years ago, there was an 18-month lead time in production. I’m the 29th cooper out of 30 cooperages, which are mostly in Kentucky and Napa. I’m considered a boutique cooperage. We have clients and orders and must up the production soon. I’m projected to make 20 barrels a week. Some small cooperages make 100 a week, and still there’s a barrel crisis.”
Quercus Cooperage, 186 Mohonk Road, High Falls; (917) 578-9948, www.qcooperage.com.