The craze for bourbon is in full swing, but fueling the demand isn’t entirely smooth sailing.
Bourbon has rules.
It must be produced in the United States, it’s grain mixture no less than 51 percent corn and it’s required to age in new, freshly charred oak barrels. Distilling bourbon also takes time, time in barrels.
Time in barrels is exactly what Camacho has become familiar with while developing its newest cigar, American Barrel-Aged. A short five months is what it found ideal for the Honduran corojo’s time in barrels, but it’s also becoming increasingly personal with time with barrels through working with Jeff Irish.
There aren’t many people making barrels these days, but there’s lot of people using them. Whether it be traditional uses like the Scottish whisky business or newer and unconventional outlets like Bourbon Barrel Rehab, the Kentucky-based company founded by Irish that gives new life to bourbon barrels by finding new applications for the prized oak in the form of jewelry, bars, instruments, promotional items and just about every home furnishing you could imagine.
Wealthy clients aren’t typically fans of off the shelf, they crave exclusivity; Jeff Irish cut his carpentry-teeth making one-off accent pieces for client’s dream homes. Eventually, he took a contract in Kentucky, where he met his girlfriend and business partner, Liz Davis. Enamored by Louisville culture, Jeff combined his passion for bourbon and woodworking and created Bourbon Barrel Rehab.
I chatted with him about his previous work and his newest creations, which are on display as Camacho launches American Barrel-Aged.
Jeff, can you give us a bit of insight into your company?
We started by taking the barrels apart and seeing what kind of unique items we could make, mainly stuff to accent a home. We try to do things unique to the bourbon industry that haven’t been done before—anything that has to do with keeping bourbon on the forefront of conversation.
What’s it been like to watch bourbon boom?
The bourbon boom really has changed the way the country perceives bourbon, not just Tennessee and Kentucky. Kentucky has been at the forefront, but now bourbon has just exploded.
And that’s probably made barrels a lot more expensive.
When we first started, we could buy barrels for $35-45 each. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you can find a barrel under $100, and that’s in three years.
Do you select specific barrels for their aesthetic characteristics, as in particular grain patterns or staining?
Not so much for grain patterns, more for how new the barrel is. It can be a 10-year-old barrel, but because they’re housed in rickhouses they don’t see direct sunlight. If it’s going to come in contact with the sun, I have to address that accordingly. I use newer barrels for the stuff that’ll be outside, whereas I might use a darker barrel for stuff that will be inside.
How many barrels do you buy on a yearly basis?
The first year we probably bought 40-50 barrels and now; it’s hard to say because, for example we had 120 Pappy Van Winkle barrels that we made product out of for Pappy & Co. so the barrels belonged to them. We ship internationally as well. We had a Canadian company buying barrels for smoker chips and we’ve sent quantities barrels to Sweden. But I would say that we’ve at least doubled every year.
You mention Pappy, what are some of the bigger clients you’ve worked with?
One of the things we specialize in, we take the barrel heads and we wood-burn company logos, in this case the Pappy Van Winkle logo, and then the master distiller, Julian Van Winkle signs it and they sell it with a letter of authenticity.
I built a 17-foot long, three-piece mobile bar for Heaven Hills Distilleries. They take it all over the the country and showcase their new bourbons with it. It was a lot of fun to do. And, as was the same as the Camacho job and the others I’ve done – I’ve pulled a couple all-nighters, but you know, if you love your job enough you’ll be dedicated to make sure everything gets done right.
So what’s it been like working with Camacho?
It was exciting for me to have a company like Camacho find us and approach us. I’m the kind of guy that follows my own direction, I don’t really follow any of the rules that people say you have to do. As soon as I looked up and did any research on Camacho, it’s just like… I belong with them. You can’t be afraid to do your own thing, and they definitely weren’t afraid to do their own thing.
How did the design process work?
The design team had already done a lot of the prep-work for me, as far as sketches of what the were looking for, and pre-thinking potential issues.
So they had a pretty well defined idea of what they were looking for going in?
Yeah, they had six designs initially, we narrowed it down to two. I just went through and said “this needs to be engineered stronger here, or this needs to be done here.” From there it was back and forth defining the drawings into the best look and design for the tour.
Tell us about the two designs you built.
Sure. The first one is a three-shelved display on what looks like an old cargo box on wheels, and it has LED lights and a rotating display on the top. It is a simple design, but it really turned out stunning.
And the other?
The second display is a barrel that is split in half length-wise, with a Plexiglas/Lexan front so you can see into each side. One side has tobacco leaves in it, while the other side is left as-is so people can see the char inside that helps give the bourbon—as well as the tobacco leaves when they’re barrel-aged—their flavor. The burn on the inside is just a great look.
Your portfolio has all manner of creations. Do you think these ideas up, or does a customer approach you and say “do you think you could make this?”
That’s a good question. When Liz and I first started, we had a $100 running bet with each other as to who had more ideas as far as what we could do with a barrel. She won, hands down. So, a lot of the things we’ve built were Liz and my ideas from the get go, and there’s a number we haven’t yet built.
With corporate projects, they usually have an idea of what they’re looking for, we just put our spin on it.
How long did the Camacho displays take to build?
I spent a lot of time building initially just trying to figure out how best to do it, and then to put the finishing touches on everything to really make it look nice. It was probably about a two and a half month process.
I was about to ask about the engineering process.
You have to over-engineer a lot of these things with the thought that it could be overused. The guitar stands are a prime example. If you don’t engineer them right, they won’t last. I won’t let anything go out of my shop unless it’s very durable, and very dependable.
Were there challenges unique to this project?
Definitely. Number one, foremost, is taking a 125-pound empty barrel and putting it up in the air on wheels. That was scary for me from the word “go.” But, if you make the ground base support strong enough and you engineer it well, it should all work out, right?
That’s what they say. Once I got the rolling display built and on the box, I had no worries about that one. The split door display… that was a challenge. That one made me turn gray a little bit more than I already am. But it was fun, it was a great design. It’s just been a great team ever since we started.