The idea for Caldwell, West Virginia-based WV Great Barrel Company
was born after a flood in 2016 devastated the nearby city of White Sulphur Springs. We recently caught up with Cate Crabtree, the cooperage’s sales & marketing manager, to reflect on the company’s past and learn more about its offerings.
ACSA: It must be surreal to look back on the flood. What does WV Great Barrel Company mean to its community and West Virginia?
Cate Crabtree: Our founders realized during a massive volunteer flood recovery effort that they needed to do more than just rebuild homes if they wanted to effect long-term change in this region. They needed to create jobs. An economic driver. And a way to add value in West Virginia to a sustainable natural resource. But it’s more than that. I always say, the one thing I’ve learned from living and working in West Virginia for the past few years is this: If you want to make a real, positive impact on people’s lives, the best thing you can do is start in the place where you are.
It’s not just West Virginia, though. I think this is a message that the craft distilling community embraces and lives fully, so we’re in good company. We’re proud of our story, we’re proud of the commitment of our team, and we’re proud of what we set out to do and the way we’re doing it. This legacy is continuing today, in fact. One of our founders, Tom Crabtree, is in Mayfield, Kentucky, right now, guiding the leadership of Homes and Hope for Kentucky, as they follow the same path to recovery that was designed here in West Virginia after the 2016 flood.
You source tight grained Appalachian white oak from a 200-mile radius. What makes it ideal for aging spirits? And what’s your approach when it comes to sustainability?
These are important questions to us, to distillers, and to whisk(e)y drinkers. As Travis Hammond over at Smooth Ambler says, “It’s hard to be a tree in West Virginia.” That’s true for most of Appalachia. The terrain is mountainous and rocky, and the winters are cold. So the tree has to work a little harder, keep a little more sugar stored away for the winter, and grow a little more slowly. That means more growth rings per inch, or tighter grain. Tight grain means a higher concentration per square inch of wood sugars and flavor extractives that the spirit can reach as it travels into and out of the wood during aging. The sustainability piece is of course front of mind for us. As a company that was founded to create a brighter future for our community, we take stewardship of this land seriously. We’re engaged with state foresters and loggers who sustainably, selectively harvest with the health of the forest in mind. The white oak population in this region is growing faster than it’s being harvested, by a significant margin, so managing the forests is quite important. And then here at our cooperage, we’re continuously improving, and one of our focuses has been maximizing the percentage of wood from each tree that goes into the barrel.
What are some other ways, specifically as it relates to production, that make your barrels stand out?
Our infrared toast—and the way we’re making it accessible to every distiller on every barrel—is probably our most exciting innovation. To see the difference between a non-toasted barrel and an infrared-toasted barrel in a head-to-head comparison just after six months or a year—the color and flavor difference is pretty amazing. And more and more, distillers see the value of the infrared toast and ask for it specifically. But really our entire process is designed to build a barrel more precisely and consistently, which ultimately gives the distiller more control over their own process, and of course a tighter, better-performing barrel. (You can see the process here.)
You have a connection to Smooth Ambler Spirits, right? Tell us a little more about that.
We have a founder in common, and a founding vision. Tinsley Azariah—better known as “TAG”—Galyean had a dream over a decade ago to create a really stellar product here in West Virginia that would be known around the world. It was meant to be an economic driver and bring tourism to the region, but it was also a way of creating a new narrative about Appalachia: the idea of “Appalachian Knowhow” and the combination of hard work, skill and integrity that goes into it. That was Smooth Ambler. We’re absolutely continuing that. But what’s interesting is that—because of the founders’ commitment to creating jobs that were safe in this community and because of this same commitment to making a really stellar product, we’re bringing a new level of technology and innovation—not just to West Virginia but to our entire industry. It’s not always what people expect when they visit a cooperage in West Virginia. But without a doubt we’re changing that expectation.
Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited about and are there any particular spirits-related trends you’re paying close attention to in 2022?
We’re seeing a lot of interest in toasted finishing barrels, some with specialty woods that our mill sources for us. Our first collaboration of this kind was with Smooth Ambler, naturally. It’s an Old Scout Toasted Barrel Finish Rye, and it’s on the market now. They just reached out for another round of toasted barrels the other day, so I’m excited to see how they’ll use these. We’re also working with Bardstown Bourbon Co. on a cherry/oak toasted barrel finish. They tested out a few bourbons and ryes and ultimately settled on a blend of six- and seven-year 95/5 Ryes. So far these projects have been true collaborations between our team and the distillers (and in the case of the Smooth Ambler project, a local liquor store collaborated as well).
Of course, regional sourcing of materials remains important to distillers, and we have a few distiller partners for whom we build barrels with white oak from particular states. We’re also seeing a lot of distillers playing around with toast and char recipes that suit their climate, in addition to mash bill and desired flavor profile. For me, these are some of the most rewarding aspects of my job. There’s an incredible spirit of generosity and collaboration in this industry, and we’re here for it.