Skillfully Southern: Black Water Barrels

A Complement to the Craft Beverage Craze

written by CARL DANBURY  |  photography by LIZ ERIKSON

GREG PIERCE WORKED FOR TWO OF THE LARGEST ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE DISTRIBUTORS IN THE U.S. FOR ABOUT 25 YEARS. Near the end of his sales career, he noticed an alarming trend for some of the distilleries and wineries he was representing — the lack of new American oak barrels, in which certain ­alcoholic beverages like bourbon, rum, tequila, beer, ale, cider, wine and Cognac are aged. 

“I got back to Columbia, S.C. one night, and my friend Dan and I had a drink out on his back porch,” Pierce explained. “I said, ‘I have this crazy idea, we need to get in the barrel business. There must be a shortage of wood or something.’ But Dan, who has a penchant for woodworking, said, ‘There isn’t a shortage of wood, there’s plenty of white oak, but we’re in the middle of a recession. People aren’t going out and buying really nice furniture right now, so the loggers aren’t cutting a lot of wood.’”

After their initial conversation, Pierce kept digging for more information. “I was still traveling around in the wine and spirits business, and I was still asking a lot of questions of people I knew in the industry,” Pierce said. “There was indeed a huge demand. The new, small craft distilleries, wineries and breweries were looking for barrels just like all the bigger, more established brands.”

Pierce and a group of investors opened Black Water Barrels in the summer of 2016 in Bamberg, S.C., which is an off-the-beaten-tract town of 4,000 folks. Production of 30-, 53- and 60-gallon barrels began early in the year, and today their barrels are rolling into distilleries and wineries in our area. In fact, production facilities for Z Brown Distillery, Kaya Vineyards and Three Sisters Vineyards in Dahlonega have Black Water products, as does Richland Estate, which produces high quality rum just south of Columbus. Lazy Guy Distillery in Kennesaw also has barrels crafted in South Carolina, which is noteworthy since nearly all barrel production facilities are located much further north where white oak trees flourish.  

Unlikely Origin

The company was named for the slow, gentle black waters of the Edisto River, which flows near Bamberg. The town is most notable as being the birthplace of Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Former 1986 World Series hero and N.Y. Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson was raised in Bamberg, too. A once prosperous cotton mill, originally built in 1892, endured to 1969. Wood products such as wagon works, hardwood veneer manufacturing and woodworking were a part of the town’s past. While none of the local labor force had any experience in barrel making they were adept in other ways.

“We’ve got some highly skilled people working with us. They have been learning a new trade and regardless of their ages, they have done an outstanding job. The average age worker is probably 45 years old. When we were set to open, I had 15 jobs available to fill, and I received more than 200 applications within the first two months. That just shows you how [bad] the economy was around here,” Pierce said.

Pierce purchased stave cutting, stave planing, stave jointing, hoop trussing, barrel crozing, bunghole drilling and head rounding equipment from Anton, Flensburg, Germany. They built the machinery to Black Water’s specifications and shipped them. From Schoolhill Engineering in Aberdeen, Scotland, Pierce scored a toasting/charring machine and pressure testing equipment. 

Other than purchasing the best equipment possible, Pierce said the smartest move he made was contracting with knowledgeable consultants. Those with years of cooperage (barrel making) experience trained his new employees.

“I hired, in my opinion, some of the best barrel builders and some other related sources to train the people that we hired locally. One is a fourth-generation cooper from Switzerland. Another gentleman, Craige Roberts, had a hand in managing and operating Napa Valley Cooperage, Demptos Napa Cooperage and Mendocino Cooperage,” Pierce said.

A good barrel, whether for the highest quality wine or bourbon, depends upon finding the best staves. For those, Pierce and Black Water Barrels rely heavily upon Rick Taylor of Taylor Stave, Nebo, N.C.

Taylor worked at Brown-Forman’s cooperage facility, spent 15 years as a machinist, then acquired more experience as a design engineer in Morganton, N.C., and while working at a pallet shop and sawmill in Florida. The ability to pay close attention to detail is paramount in wood stave selection. Taylor helped train Black Water’s production teams on reading the white oak’s medullary rays, which are large bands of radial cells emanating outward from the center of the log, similar to the spokes of a wheel. In quarter-sawn materials, the wood is cut into boards with the growth rings roughly perpendicular to the face of the board. While the pores found in the growth rings on red oak often are open and porous, white oak has its pores plugged with a plastic–like substance called tyloses. This method makes white oak suitable for watertight vessels like barrels and gives it increased resistance to rot and decay. The importance of selecting the right wood for the barrels is key to long-term customer satisfaction and repeat orders.

“We buy quarter-sawn white oak at 1.25 inches thick and it is air dried for a minimum of 12 months. We do some things that are probably not the cheapest way of producing barrels, but it is the traditional way,” Pierce stated.

Little is wasted during the traditional manufacturing process. “You hate to cut down a hundred year old tree and get one or two cuts and see the rest of it go to waste. We give our sawdust to local horse farmers, and the chocks that are left over, we cut them into blocks and sell them to a local charcoal company,” Pierce said. 

“I’ve got great partners who were willing to take a chance on the entire concept. It’s a fun business and there is no end in sight for white oak barrels. If you’re in the bourbon business, you can only use the barrels one time, but now they are used for rum and tequila, Cognac, wine and beer, cider, hot sauce, etc.” Aging products in American white oak barrels, rather than stainless steel tanks or other vessels, can add complexity, flavor, nuance and unique characteristics.  

Testament to Quality 

A craft distillery less than 100 miles from Black Water’s manufacturing facility confirmed Pierce’s concept was sound. Charleston Distilling Company’s co-founder Steve Heilman said the barrels his company purchased early on — prior to the opening of Black Water Barrels — were bought on an allocation basis.  

“When we opened, it was really hard to find quality barrels. That has eased up some now. Our first year in business, we could only buy a dozen barrels. Then, the next year the cooperage said they would sell us 15. It’s nice to have more options,” Heilman said. “We try to buy as many local products as we can, so it’s nice to finally have a cooperage here in South Carolina. The pricing is fairly standard, but obviously we can cut down on overall costs due to reduced shipping. We bought 30 from Black Water Barrels. They are working great.”

Heilman said the plans are to utilize Black Water’s 53-gallon barrels for Charleston Distilling’s two types of rye (Calhoun’s Straight Rye and Calhoun’s Rye) and two types of bourbon.

Don Walton, Jr., is an attorney from Jacksonville, N.C., who opened Walton’s Distillery last year. Until Black Water Barrels arrived on the scene, supply had been uncertain.

“Larger distilleries only sell their overstock. You may get them one year and never get to order them again,” Walton said. “I try to deal with local suppliers whenever possible, and not having to try to go to Kentucky or Missouri for barrels is a blessing. Black Water is pretty much just across the creek, within a five-hour drive for me. They are pretty quick to fulfill the order, and so far, the quality seems to be pretty good.”

Andrew Porter, founder of Doc Porter’s in Charlotte, N.C. currently distills vodka, gin and bourbon.

“All of our grains come from local farmers, our corn, wheat, rye and malted barley all come from within North Carolina. Getting as much as we can locally is really important to us. That’s why we were excited that Black Water Barrels was opening,” Porter said. 

“Before we used cooperages out of Missouri, Kentucky and Minnesota. When I got to visit Black Water’s facility, I was able to see that they were making high-quality barrels. We filled eight of their 30-gallon barrels with our bourbon. We are excited to keep working with them and hope to put some different products in their barrels as well and order more from them. We also were excited to hear that Greg has found a stave supplier in North Carolina, which will give us even more of a regional taste.”

Leanne Powell, president and CEO of Southern Grace Distilleries, Mt. Pleasant, N.C., operates the only distillery in America located in a former prison. 

“I have three sources for barrels. Black Water does my 53-gallon barrels, and I was on the waiting list at other cooperages. There is quite the shortage these days for quality barrels; you can find barrels, it’s more of a problem to find quality barrels. I was very happy to connect with Greg. We did a lot of due diligence on our part checking it out. There is nothing more important than what we are putting our bourbon in, so we wanted to make sure Black Water is a good operation, and it certainly is,” Powell stated. 

Before entering the business, Powell researched all of the distilleries that made the bourbon she enjoyed most. During her trips to Kentucky she learned that good wood and quality construction of the barrels is important, but it is also important as to where the barrels are stored.

“The conditions determine a lot about how the bourbon turns out. It is very important to have the ability to develop both the toasting and the char of the barrel that will suit your taste,” Powell said. “We are glad to have a good consistent source we can count on nearby. They are careful how they source the wood and we appreciate that.” Southern Grace began barrel aging in January.

Learning Curves

The Black Water team got off to a rocky start. Shortly before Governor Haley and other dignitaries attended the company’s September 2016 ribbon-cutting ceremony in Bamberg, Pierce and his team had encountered equipment problems. 

“We had tooling issues with the equipment maker, and we had already hired a full staff. Let’s just say we had plenty of time to make decorative barrels while we were trying to get the issues fixed. You can’t just run down to Lowes to get parts for these machines,” Pierce said. 

“State-of-the-art equipment comes with a learning curve, and if you are one of the first here [in the U.S.] to have it, you have to rely upon the manufacturer for repairs. In this case, the commute from Germany was a bit taxing,” Pierce chuckled. “We are grateful we went this direction and we’ve got everything fixed, however, we were out of commission from making spirits-grade barrels for several months.”

The equipment must be precise and it needs spot-on calibration, Pierce offered. Once set, the machines ran as intended but some customers that had pre-ordered couldn’t wait until the issues were fixed.

As for the first barrel off the line? 

“It leaked like hell!” Pierce exclaimed. “Unfortunately, we dropped a sizable bowling ball on our big toe. Some said, ‘We’ll look out for you next time, but we had to move on.’ That happened to us several times,” Pierce admitted. 

Once the kinks were fixed, the manufacturing process became as smooth as an engraved barrel lid. Customers have come to appreciate the capabilities that Black Water Barrels offer, such as their custom toasting and charring offerings. 

“We invite our customers to come in, go through the process together and experiment with what will make them successful,” Pierce elaborated. “From a quality perspective, I think we’re going to be successful long term because we test every single barrel. A barrel does not leak when it leaves this building.”

From an educational standpoint, Black Water provides instruction for distilleries, wineries and breweries on how to hydrate the barrels before filling, and how to repair small leaks if they occur. They provide direction on crucial barrel storage, as well. 

“Like the majority of our customers, we make a craft product with the highest quality ingredients. In our case, we start with a high grade of wood. Because of our location alone, customers in the Southeast will save money on freight,” Pierce said. “If anyone has had an issue with a barrel from us, we have worked with them individually to rectify the problem. You’re only new once, and there is no way we’re going to get off on the wrong foot by not fulfilling our customers’ expectations.”