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As Vermont distilleries grow so does ancient art of barrel making

July 10, 2018

Burlington Free Press

Vermont distilleries are in about the same place the state's breweries were 30 years ago, says Adam Overbay, co-owner of Old Route Two Spirits in Barre. Ready to take on the world.
Overbay says the number of distilleries in Vermont is growing rapidly.  The state has gone from three distilleries in 2004 to 28 distilleries in 2018, according to the Vermont Department of Liquor Control.

Three Vermont National Guardsmen — Tony Fletcher, Josh Waterhouse and Mac Broich — took note of the growth of spirits production in the state and decided to start a business.
Egged on by their compatriots at Danger Close Craft Distilling in St. Albans — who are also veterans — the trio founded Green Mountain Grain & Barrel in 2016.

They make barrels for aging whiskey and other liquors. They work out of a renovated milk parlor on Fletcher's property in Richmond.

Barrel makers, also known as coopers, have been perfecting their craft for hundreds of years. Barrels require precise measurements, careful cutting of the "staves," or sides of the barrel, and knot-free, clear white oak to make sure there are no leaks or impurities. A barrel may look simple, but making one requires 28 steps, Broich said.

The trio is self-taught in barrel making techniques, which includes setting the inside of the barrel on fire to create the "char" that helps age whiskey and imparts the subtle flavors of the wood.
Buy Photo
Tony Fletcher tightens the staves on a barrel at Green Mountain Grain & Barrel in Richmond on Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS)

"The heavier the char, the thicker the layer of charcoal, which acts as a purification level between the liquid and the wood on the inside," Fletcher said. "It also gives it a lot of the color."

Fletcher traveled to Kentucky, which together with Missouri is the epicenter of barrel-making in the United States, but found it hard to get information from other coopers. He met with some of the big barrel producers but found what they were doing irrelevant to what he and his partners wanted to do with Green Mountain Grain & Barrel.

"Everything was assembly line, automated," Fletcher said of the big barrel makers.

So how did Fletcher and his partners learn how to make barrels?

"We read these old books from 100 years ago," Fletcher said. "We use a lot of those techniques even now that others don't use any more."

The average retail cost of a barrel is about $300. Because they still have day jobs, the partners are only producing a handful of barrels each month, working with five or six small distilleries. But they have big plans for the future.

"Right now we’re trying to fill that niche at a small scale," Fletcher said. "Once we can increase production and put more time into it we’ll be able to grow."

The barrels are "exquisite," according to Adam Overbay of Old Route Two Spirits.

Buy PhotoTony Fletcher prepares to put the head in a barrel at Green Mountain Grain & Barrel in Richmond on Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS)

"We got one of their barrels to be our first whiskey barrel, which will be filled in a month or so," Overbay said. "It's incredibly high quality. They're just starting out and already doing great work."

Overbay said Green Mountain Grain & Barrel came along at just the right time for his business.

"As a startup distillery, they're the kind of operation we're looking for to be able to grow with them," Overbay said. "Hopefully they will increase at roughly the same rate as us and we'll have a steady and secure supply of these precious barrels."

Precious, because without barrels Overbay doesn't have a business. Overbay jokes that if he had to do it over again, he might start a cooperage rather than a distillery.

"We're so dependent, if we lose a cooperage source, that can shut us down for months," Overbay said.

Overbay has only bought one whiskey barrel from Green Mountain Grain & Barrel so far, but has an order in for more. He's also planning to buy reconditioned whiskey barrels from the company to make rum.

"They’re so backed up right now it’s hard to get barrels from them," Overbay said.

Peter Jillson, owner of the Silo Distillery in Windsor, thought about making his own barrels, but decided it wasn't a good idea.

"It's not easy to make a barrel," Jillson said.

Buy PhotoTony Fletcher prepares to slip a hoop onto the white oak staves of a barrel at Green Mountain Grain & Barrel in Richmond on Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS)

Silo is one of Green Mountain Grain & Barrel's best customers, with a standing order for five barrels every quarter, according to Tony Fletcher.

"Old Route Two wants as many barrels as we can make," Fletcher added.

Jillson said Vermont-made barrels close the circle on sourcing as much as he can from Vermont, including the grain that goes into Silo vodkas, gins and whiskeys.

"We will continue to support these guys 100 percent," Jillson said. "It takes them time. They're not cranking out 500 barrels at a whack. We have to give them lead time but they're getting better and faster with every run."

In the interest of getting better and faster, Fletcher, Waterhouse and Broich are about to make their largest capital investment yet. They plan to buy a machine that will make a barrel stave in 25 seconds that takes five minutes to make now, using the tools the partners currently have.

Buy PhotoThe partners at Green Mountain Grain & Barrel are upgrading their woodworking machinery thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Agriculture. (Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS)

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture helped out with a $50,000 grant from the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Tony Fletcher said the grant covered almost half the cost of the new stave-making machine from Slovenia.

"Right now we're working on a small scale," Fletcher said. "Once we can increase production and put more time into it, we'll be able to grow."

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