Barrel maker to open two plants in Southwest Virginia

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A rendering of the stave mill planned for Washington County.

A Scottish barrel maker owned by a French company is opening two plants in Southwest Virginia, investing a total of $35 million and creating as many as 185 jobs.

Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, which opened a stave mill in Bath County in July, plans to invest $9 million in another stave mill in the Highland Business Park in Washington County. 

The staves will be turned into bourbon barrels at a former woodworking plant in the Smyth County community of Atkins, a $25 million investment.

General Manager Darren Whitmer says natural resources helped draw Speyside to Southwest Virginia. (The new plants will get about 80 percent of the white oak they use from Virginia.) Location mattered, too. In addition to the Bath County stave plant, Speyside has facilities in Ohio. Most of its customers are in Kentucky.

Finding an empty, available, 270,000-square-foot building that used to be a cabinet factory in Smyth was a bonus. Whitmer says the coop­erage there can be turning out barrels 12 to 18 months sooner than if the plant began as an open field. The building was “somewhat tailor-made for a cooperage,” Whitmer says, “because we’re nothing more than woodworkers at the end of the day.”

But they’re a very specialized kind of woodworker. “You’re fitting wood sticks together with no nails or glue or anything,” he says. “Six metal hoops holding the barrel together — so it does take some skill and understanding.”

Coopers aren’t exactly commonplace, but Speyside has a remedy for that.

“We train our own,” Whitmer says. “I’ve got 15 to 20 years in the business, and my right hand, Alberto Ramirez, my production manager, probably has 20-plus years in the business. We teach it ourselves, the two of us … When we opened up our stave mill in Millboro a couple of months ago, I was there in gloves and jeans and safety glasses with a smile on my face, teaching guys how to run a stave saw and make a stave.”

Each 53-gallon barrel is more than a container, according to Whitmer. It’s integral to whiskey’s character.

“All of the color comes from the white oak,” he says. “And probably 50 percent of the flavor comes from the white oak.”

Incentives for the Speyside project include a $325,000 grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund, a $200,000 grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund and $510,000 in Tobacco Region Opportunity Funds.

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