Standing on a wooded hillside in the Ozarks, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis, Brad Boswell watches a chain-saw-wielding logger make several deft cuts at the base of a 100-foot white oak. The logger points to a clearing down the slope and, with one final, quick slash, sends the tree falling, exactly where he pointed.
Boswell scrambles over to look at the swirls and loops that make up the tree's cross section. If they're consistent, and the wood doesn't show scars from fire damage or disease, it will most likely end up in some of the hundreds of thousands of barrels that his 1,500-person company, Independent Stave, turns out every year.
His great-grandfather, T.W. Boswell, founded Independent Stave in 1912, and Brad Boswell now runs it with his brother and sister. Based in Lebanon, Mo., the company is the world's largest barrel manufacturer, at a time when demand for wine, whiskey and beer — all of which rely on barrels for aging — is skyrocketing.
The United States is now the largest market for wine barrels. Domestic whiskey production is up 41 percent in the past decade — and, thanks to a quirk in federal law, almost every drop has to be aged in a new oak barrel. The demand has come on so suddenly and vertiginously that barrel prices are up 70 percent since 2012, and some cooperages have 12-month waiting lists.
The barrel industry — which includes about 15 companies, most of them, aside from Independent Stave, quite small — stands as an exception in a mainly dismal American manufacturing industry: Despite an overall robust July employment report, the country lost 33,000 manufacturing jobs in the previous six months.
Bucking that trend, several new cooperages are in the works, and existing companies have all expanded production.
Not long ago, though, the world didn't think much of American oak barrels. The bourbon industry cratered in the 1980s and '90s, while American winemakers preferred to import expensive French oak barrels, the better to craft the Bordeaux-style reds coming out of California.
A big part of the problem was the barrels themselves, which were often full of imperfections because of frequent forest fires and arboreal diseases. "Back in the day, you'd see fire scars, knots, timber streak, all sorts of things," Boswell said.
Low-tech American cooperages didn't do much to improve the situation. An American barrel in 1990 looked, and performed, about as well as a barrel from 1790.
But alongside the bourbon boom of the past decade has come a technological revolution in American barrel making, led by the Boswells and Independent Stave. Computers, cameras and a better understanding of the science behind barrel aging have taken much of the guesswork out of the process, and allowed an explosion in customization and innovation.
"When I started, you couldn't run your hand over the barrels or else you'd get splinters," said David Pickerell, a whiskey industry consultant and former master distiller at Maker's Mark who has worked with two generations of Boswells at Independent Stave. "Now, they're like furniture."
A century ago, when T.W. Boswell founded Independent Stave, the wood barrel was the equivalent of today's aluminum shipping container, a workhorse used to haul products as diverse as whiskey and wood nails.
Between uses, merchants would burn their barrels' insides to sterilize the surface and remove errant smells or flavors. Somewhere along the way, customers noticed that wines and spirits that spent a few months in a barrel lost some of their edge and took on a pleasant color and flavor. Barrel aging was born.
Whiskey and wine consumption picked up through the postwar years, and Independent Stave expanded with it.
By the time Brad Boswell joined the company in the 1990s, in-house chemists and engineers were overhauling every aspect of the company's barrels and production lines.
Today the company that makes an age-old product operates like a tech startup.