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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Bourbon-Barrel Shortages Are Affecting Local Distillers

Posted By on Wed, Aug 19, 2015 at 8:49 AM

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Dave Weglarz of Still 630. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Dave Weglarz of Still 630.

The industry wasn't necessarily ready for the increase in demand. And there wasn't much it could do in real time to sate it.

"When it comes to whiskey, people think older is better," Neukomm says. "So people went out and bought older whiskey. You can't go back in time and make more of it to age."

Even so, there's little evidence of a serious shortage of whiskey, though distilleries seem to be less inclined to boast about how old their precious liquid is. Plenty of good bourbon fills liquor-store shelves. A recent piece in Whisky Advocate claims the eight major distilleries currently have no supply problems. Says Patrick "Pops" Garrett, founder of Bourbon & Banter, "There's plenty of bourbon to drink now and will be for the foreseeable future."

But as the number of smaller distilleries grows exponentially, barrels might be a different story. Craft distillers, says Garrett, face the biggest challenge: "Most of the majors have existing contracts that get them first right to the barrels that are being made."

For new St. Louis-area distilleries, that's particularly galling, as much of the white oak used to age whiskey is grown right here in Missouri.

White oak is quite hard, but still pliable, making it the perfect wood for barrel staves. It also happens that American white oak has especially high concentrations of a compound called tylose, which makes the finished barrels watertight. According to the United States Forest Service, Missouri has ideal growing conditions for American white oak, and so trees grown here are prized by both barrel and bourbon makers.

David Weglarz, owner and distiller at Still 630, is proud of his award-winning Missouri whiskeys. "One of the great things about my distillery being in Missouri is that the best oak grows right in our back yard in the Ozarks. We use Missouri oak barrels, and our handmade pot still was also made in Missouri," Weglarz says.

But his barrels are getting more expensive and taking longer to arrive. "The last shipment I got from Independent Stave Company took three months," Weglarz says. Meanwhile, the price has gone up — Weglarz reports that Independent Stave's basic barrel costs at least 25 percent more than it used to.

"Even if you're able to get barrels, the prices are skyrocketing," Weglarz says. One cooperage that used to charge $160 per barrel now charges $275.

Steve Neukomm of Square One complains about these price increases as well. Previously, "$125 a barrel was typical. Barrels in my latest order were over $165, with no notice at all," Neukomm says.

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