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Cooperage brings new life to old plant in Jackson

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Speyside Cooperidge in Jackson uses local timber to fashion bourbon barrels.

Like a fine blended whiskey, Speyside Bourbon Cooperage in Jackson represents a mix of nature, people, technology and millennial tastes. It’s a combo putting grains into a unique international market.

Except as yard planters, whiskey barrels weren’t on Jackson’s radar a few years ago. However, a boom in exports and domestic sales of American-made bourbon created demand for the new white oak barrels needed to age whiskey at least two years.

Enter Speyside, part of TFF Group, a worldwide cooperage company based in France. To satisfy the 24/7 production of bourbon distillers, additional sources of white oak staves were needed for barrels.

Expansion

About three years ago Speyside planned to expand its cooperage near Louisville, Ky., when the company learned of the vacant, 250,000 square-foot kitchen cabinet factory in Jackson. The plant is surrounded by the white oak-rich forests covering the Appalachian foothills.

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Once the white oak is selected and precisely cut by computer, left, the staves are fashioned by hand into a barrel shape, center. Once the right boards are in place, the barrel is rimmed with temporary bands and sent through a steamer to become pliable enough for the wood to be shaped into a water-tight barrel. They are later charred to customer specifications then prepared for shipping. Speyside produces or repairs more than 150,000 oak casts for use at its distilleries here and around the world.

The plant had the dyers, kilns and space in place. It was “perfect infrastructure,” said Alberto Ramirez, Speyside’s operations manager.

Employment

The community was eager to see the plant revived. At its peak, 300 people worked for a cabinet maker that occupied the space until 2013 when the plant closed.

A variety of state and local grants and aid amounting to $250,000 helped the company with equipment and other expenses.

“To get a company like Speyside with its jobs, it’s nothing short of a home run for this community,” said Sam Brady, Jackson County Economic Development Partnership executive director. The partnership is comprised of local government and private sector representatives.

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On a recent tour, Alberto Ramirez, Speyside’s operations manager, talked about the process of creating the lids for ends, or “heads,” of the bourbon barrel.

Speyside opened with 35 employees making 400 barrels a day, but within two years it has grown to 145 employees. Currently it produces 1,400 barrels a day, sometimes working Saturdays. Even so, demand is such additional sawmills are needed.

“If we want an endorsement of the workforce of the community, those numbers speak volumes,” said Jackson Mayor Randy Heath.

However, “Jackson was not known for its abundance of barrel makers prior to Speyside’s start-up,” quipped Rob Kincaid, production and reliability manager.

Kitchen cabinets are one thing, barrels another.

The ‘Yoda’ of barrel making

Enter Ramirez, operations manager. He has worked with barrels most of his life, starting in the California wine industry and then moving into whiskey. When he joined Speyside, he expected to go to work at the Kentucky site.

Kincaid calls Ramirez the “Yoda” of barrel making, referring to the wise character who counseled Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker.

Even more important than wood, are the hands shaping the barrels.

“We hire the character and teach them how to make the barrels,” Ramirez said of the people on staff. He considers the workers their top resource.

Learning the basics goes fairly quickly. Kincaid said a couple of individuals were trained to work in each area of the production process. They learned “safety, quality, what to look for and how to fix issues,” Kincaid said. “Once we had people trained in each step, it became an assembly line.”

“It’s a merge of old world craftsmanship with 21st century technology,” Brady said of Speyside’s computer-guided cutting tools and hands-on assembly system.

Community partner

In addition to jobs that pay a living wage, “they came in and instantly made themselves part of the community” by supporting local organizations and buying locally when they can, Brady said. Speyside is a member of the Ohio Farm Bureau in Jackson County and has been involved in Farm Bureau events such as the Hometown Harvest Dinner in the Street last fall.

The community hopes the barrel boom brings more of a good thing in terms of new employers. “It’s one of the best endorsements,” said Heath of Speyside’s decision to locate in Jackson. “It’s worldwide. Any time you can get this kind of plus in economic development, it’s priceless. We’re very blessed.”

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