By Evan Henerson
The specialized barrels at the Brown-Forman Cooperage are hand crafted out of Appalachian white oak. Only the best will do for the barrels that are built to age some of the world’s most famous spirits like Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and of course, Jack Daniel’s.
“We have another process, but I can’t go into detail on it,” says Patrick Wheeler, a 20-year employee at the Cooperage and the Recording Secretary of United Auto Workers, Local 2309. “They won’t even take the tours into the room where that process goes on.”
Given the specialized work they do, it’s fair to characterize as artists Wheeler and many of his 250 UAW brothers and sisters who work at the Cooperage. Brown-Forman is the only spirits company in the world to make its own barrels and if those barrels aren’t assembled correctly, the quality of the booze will suffer. Wheeler began as a barrel raiser and eventually moved his way up to a coveted – and higher paying – position as a staver.
A married father of two daughters, Wheeler commutes 60 miles from the rural community of Upton, KY. “Nothing in the area comes close to paying what [Brown-Forman] pays,” he notes.
Raising barrels is a rite of passage at the Cooperage, and no, “raising” doesn’t mean hoisting them up onto a truck or an assembly line. Raising a barrel means raising it from non-existence, correctly blending wide and narrow pieces of wood to keep the barrel’s belly even all the way around. Stavers seek out and repair defects to prevent leaks. If an irreparable defect is found, the barrel may have to be thrown out.
“When the barrels get up to the inspector, if there’s a leak or a knot or a streak or anything like that, it’s fairly simple to see the water shooting out,” says Wheeler. “If they’re unable to repair it, they kick it over to the coopers who are basically there to change the staves.”
Cooperage employees are typically given one free barrel a year. Sometimes they are also treated to some product samples. On the occasion that marked the company’s selling its 10 millionth case of Jack Daniel’s, Brown-Forman employees were given a bottle with a special 10 millionth case label.
“There were only 1,000 of those bottles,” Wheeler said. “Some people didn’t think they were worth anything and they drank them that night. Mine is still sitting on a shelf in my bedroom. I saw one of them go for upwards of $600 on Ebay.”
When he started at Brown-Forman at the age of 19, Wheeler was barely out of high school. None of his family had been in unions and he didn’t know anything about any union presence at Brown-Forman of even what unions were.
After a few years, he started to realize the benefits of his UAW membership – the camaraderie between his union brothers and sisters, the better benefits, improved pay and protection. Seven years ago, he was elected as a steward, and he is now in his third term as Local 2309’s recording secretary.
“I guess we’re basically like a family,” he says.