Collaborations · Video Projects

Grit & Grain — Chapter Four — "You just don't teach that overnight"

In all their years of coopering, they've never signed a contract. They just do what they say they're going to do, and that's how an enormous number of bourbon barrels are produced every year — on the word of the McGinnis family in Cuba, Missouri. 

50 years ago, everyone told them they were crazy for getting in to the cooperage business, and those people were probably right. But the McGinnis' were playing a long game — a multi-generational bet that American spirits had their best days ahead. Now the family, lead by Leroy McGinnis, work with some of the most important bourbon, wine, and scotch makers — bending Missouri-grown white oak to their will through blade, steam, and fire to help produce some of the most delicate and nuanced alcoholic beverages in the world. 

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There were a lot of ups and downs in the business' history as they worked to secure their place in the industry, watching helplessly from afar as American spirits fought for their own foothold around the globe. Those lean days were when Leroy's son, Don, would work in the mill when he wasn't in school, contributing in whatever way he could to the future of the family. He grew to hate the work at times, like any kid might. But when it came time for him to look into his own future, he felt more at home driving back and forth to Kentucky with his father than going off to get a job elsewhere. Now, Don manages the floor day-to-day, and these two are inseparable.

Building a barrel is a hands-on learning curve. There are at least a dozen steps from milling to construction, and as precise as the final product is, each step involves imperfect decision-making. Every stave is a different width, has a slightly different grain and strength, and fits into the ring willingly, or with an iron suggestion. It's steamed, bent, sanded, burned, and at the end of it all, finished and inspected. Any defects are dealt with one stave replacement at a time, by hand. 

And you don't just buy coopering equipment out of a catalog. Many of the machines used to bend steel and wood are custom built on-site, tearing apart old machines and re-purposing their parts for another purpose as the years teach them new tricks. It's the kind of industry where you have to realize your own ideas — and methods change slowly, but surely, from one generation to the next. Walking around the stave yard with Don, we saw decades-old equipment still being harvested for parts as their operation expands. 

1,000 barrels a day. That's what it takes to supply one distillery like Heaven Hill, where many of McGinnis' barrels are bound. And looking out over the stave yard where each board is neatly stacked for optimal air-flow, aging in the open air and rain of Missouri for three years, it's astonishing how much one family can bet on the future. But thank god they did. 

That's a legit BBQ stain on Leroy's shirt in the video. Dude really put it away with some "Bud Heavies," as he calls them.

Collab by Michael Kiser
+ Goose Island

Michael Kiser

Michael is the founder of Good Beer Hunting. He travels the globe — writing, shooting, and collaborating with breweries of all shapes and sizes. This site is his chronicle of a life in beer as he witnesses the cultural explosion first-hand and finds the people, places, and products with amazing stories.

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