CUBA, Mo. – Don McGinnis traces his finger along the top edge of a wooden barrel on the factory floor while a sea of workers around him cut planks of oak, position staves to form a circle, and char the insides of the liquid-tight containers.
As he and family members have done for decades, McGinnis’ inspection of the 600 wooden barrels that are produced daily at the facility is a critical part of the quality control process that’s made McGinnis Wood Products a highly sought-after supplier of wooden barrels for alcohol producers worldwide.
“The barrels we’re putting on the trailers today will be full of whiskey tomorrow,” said McGinnis, the company’s president.
The seemingly unquenchable thirst for bourbon and other spirits in the U.S. and worldwide is leading to a boom in business for the company McGinnis’ father, Leroy, founded in 1968 as a stave mill.
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McGinnis Wood Products began making bourbon barrels in 1987 and has grown to be among the largest cooperages in the country, producing more than 150,000 barrels annually. Its annual revenue, about $26 million, is the highest in the company’s history, and it’s on track to reach $30 million next year.
The company employs about 150 people at its base in Cuba, Mo., about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.
McGinnis Wood Products makes barrels for some of the country’s top-selling bourbons, including Evan Williams, a Kentucky bourbon that’s barrel-aged for as long as 10 years. McGinnis also ships barrels to Japan, Spain, Scotland and other locales worldwide.
Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are undergoing a resurgence, with U.S. sales growing nearly 20 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Last year, more than 18 million 9-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold domestically, totaling $2.4 billion in revenue for distillers, according to the group.
McGinnis Wood Products also makes barrels for wineries, including Rambauer Vineyards in California’s Napa Valley and Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash.
As more distilleries and winemakers are turning to barrel-aging their beverages, McGinnis is increasing capacity to keep up with demand. It recently opened a facility in Pierce City, Mo., that employs 25 people producing oak staves for barrel production. And, it’s on the lookout for another facility in a neighboring state to keep up with rising sales. The company is on track to sell between 10,000 and 15,000 more barrels than it did in 2013.
“It hasn’t let up since the late 1980s,” said Leroy McGinnis, 85, who continues to oversee operations. “It’s just gotten stronger ever since.”
Situated along the famed Route 66, McGinnis Wood Products’ Cuba headquarters and production facilities are sprawled across 56 acres. Dozens of stacks of Missouri oak logs line the property, ready to be de-barked and split into staves.
After they’re cut, wood that will be made into wine barrels is air-dried outdoors in neatly stacked piles for three years. Wood that will be made into bourbon barrels are dried in a kiln.
Inside the main barrel factory, beginning each day at 6 a.m., workers place together between 30 and 32 oak staves to create a single barrel. The barrels are transported on a line through a steam tunnel that heats the barrels as high as 200 degrees Fahrenheit, to make them more pliable for steel rings to be added. At one station, an air pressure machine is used to test the barrel for leaks.
A bourbon barrel’s interior surface is charred with flames.
“The barrel char filters out impurities and creates wood sugar, which accounts for 60 percent of the flavor,” Don McGinnis said. Wine barrels are toasted inside for varying amounts of time, based on the type of wine.
More than a dozen McGinnis family members – including Leroy’s wife, Ovia Marie, who’s 80 – work at the family business. Ovia Marie McGinnis credits Missouri’s rolling hills for producing the quality of oak that makes their barrels so popular.
“With the hills here, the trees grow more slowly, and there are less pores in them,” she said, describing the watertight wood. “It’s a tighter grain.”
Up until a year ago, all McGinnis-produced barrels held 53 gallons for bourbon and about 60 gallons for wine. But a growing number of distilleries kept requesting barrels they could use for smaller batches, and about a year ago, McGinnis began making 15-gallon barrels.
The company now makes up to 100 15-gallon barrels a week, at the same price as the larger barrels: about $150 for bourbon barrels and $200 for wine barrels.
Last year, St. Louis orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bill Schroer was chatting with Ovia Marie McGinnis about her knee replacement when the talk turned to alcohol, and she mentioned her family’s business. Schroer’s ears perked up. In his spare time in 2012, he and two friends started St. Louis Distillery, a craft vodka distillery, but they found they could produce far more Cardinal Sin Vodka than the upstart could sell.
“Our wives like to say this is our midlife crisis,” Schroer said of the distillery he co-founded with Steve Heberholt and Greg Deters. The distillery produces about 1,000 cases of Cardinal Sin Vodka a year for sale at retailers and restaurants in Missouri, Illinois and Georgia.
After hearing about McGinnis’ barrels, Schroer and his partners began developing a barrel-aged vodka, convinced a barrel would add depth and flavor.
While researching the product, Schroer found some barrel-aged vodka made in Poland, Russia and Lithuania, but he could find no similar products made in the U.S. This weekend, the distillery launched Cardinal Sin Starka, aged for six months in McGinnis barrels. The Starka has the color and character of a smooth bourbon or scotch.
Beer makers also are increasingly turning to barrel aging for added aroma, flavor and color. Those beer makers include St. Louis’ largest craft brewery, The St. Louis Brewery, maker of Schlafly beer.
Goose Island’s brewery in Chicago buys used bourbon barrels from Evan Williams’ parent company, Heaven Hill Distilleries, that were made by McGinnis Wood Products.
Goose Island, which is owned by A-B InBev, uses the wooden barrels to age Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, a seasonal product released the day after Thanksgiving that typically sells out within a day of release.
Demand for its barrel-aged beers have grown rapidly in recent years, prompting Goose Island to expand to a 130,000-square-foot warehouse in Chicago, which is four times the size of its previous facility.
“There’s big demand for new barrels and second-use barrels,” said Goose Island brewmaster Brett Porter.
The booming interest in barrel-aging by alcohol producers also has led to a rise in sales at Lebanon, Mo.-based Independent Stave Co., the world’s largest wooden barrel maker. Founded in 1912, Independent doesn’t disclose revenue or production figures. It has three manufacturing facilities in Missouri.
Brad Boswell, president at Independent, said the rise in popularity of “brown spirits” including bourbon, whiskey and Scotch, had prompted the company founded by his great-grandfather to add employees and make acquisitions. Independent recently expanded by acquiring the assets of Ohio Stave Company of Zanesville, Ohio.
Brown spirits lost favor with alcohol drinkers from the 1970s to 2000, Boswell said, but there’s been a resurgence, particularly in the past two to three years.
“People’s palates are becoming more sophisticated, and that lends itself to brown spirits,” Boswell said. “As brown spirits have risen in popularity, the cooperage industry has benefited.”