Half-covered in sawdust, half-covered in smoke, Joe Smith rolls into the barn his last finished barrel of the day. It’s a crystal day in early April, coming on evening. What you see everywhere in this old Grand Rapids, Michigan workshop is wood, steel and more wood. What you don’t see? A chair to rest. You see family history etched and scribbled on plaster walls. Tools laced with rust. Coffee mugs traced with rings of bourbon.
Joe Smith is what you’d expect out of a guy named Joe Smith. A brick wall with two legs; Michigan born, Michigan made.
Joe Smith handcrafts white oak barrels for distilling whisky, known as coopering. Small cooperages once thrived for centuries until mass production took over. Now, Joe’s cooperage, Croze Nest, and a small band of others across the country are giving rise to the trade. With the proliferation of regional craft distilleries, demand has grown for small volumes of barrels, made locally.
Intensity meets Joe’s voice, “Distilleries come to me because they can talk to me. We discuss flavor profiles. Color. Length of distillation. What level of char or toast. I’m not some mass production with a take it-or-leave it approach. Even after delivery, I remain a part of the distillation process so I can learn from the outcomes and how to improve.”
Demand and appreciation has also grown for subtle, unique flavorings. The barrel is to bourbon what the womb is to a baby. It feeds it, nurtures it, gives it life. “100% of color and up to 80% of a whisky’s flavor comes from the barrel. Period. To me, it’s all about the choice of wood. I use the best wood: Missouri White Oak. There’s just something about the fungus in the wood that comes from this one specific area in Missouri. It’s crazy”. Joe goes on to talk about fungus and bacteria as any other guy might talk about college football.
Coopering is a fascinating and complex mix of engineering, carpentry, chemistry and biology. All Joe has basically sought to learn on his own. “I love the challenge. The precision. I’ve got a couple thousandths of an inch to play with. Anything more than that and the barrel will leak. The bourbon is lost. It’s not easy making a 53 gallon barrel that won’t leak, time after time.”
And then there’s the sure physical nature of the work. “It’s hard work. Really hard work”, laughs Joe. Wrestling five 125lb. barrels into shape for the better part of a day requires ungodly strength. Muscles ache, hands splinter. Steel staves–the rings that hold the barrel together–are beaten into place with the relentless crushing force of a 5lb sledge. It’s Crossfit, hour after hour. Step after step.
Finished, Joe still frets over each barrel. Examining. Massaging. Again and again. The pressure it took to shape these barrels is second only to the pressure Joe puts on himself. Soon these barrels will travel to Detroit City Distillery and their home for the next few years. His phone rings. “My wife.” He slips into the shadows of the barn for a moment. “She was just checkin’ in. I’m always home from 5-9 to spend time with the kids. Then, I’m back here on a lot of nights. That’s our deal.”
You see Joe Smith in his workshop and you see a guy in his element. Long gone are the corporate marketing gigs he once held. Long gone is answering to the standards of someone else. Long gone are the doubters. This is a guy who just doesn’t make barrels, this is a guy who has made it. Not measured in money, measured in a couple thousandths of an inch.
Cheers to that.
Learn more about Joe Smith and his cooperage, Croze Nest, at www.crozenest.com.
Follow Croze Nest on Instagram @crozenestoakbarrels