Jack Daniel’s and IBEW Team Up in Ala.

July 1, 2014


Jack Daniel’s makes every barrel they use –the last large-scale distillery to make their own – and uses every barrel only once. With demand rising, they needed more barrels.

Northwest Alabama has been a hard place for union workers for decades.


“The area around Decatur and Huntsville has been very anti-union, just tough” said Glen Ozbirn, journeyman wireman and member of Sheffield, Ala., Local 558. “There are people who wouldn’t hire us even if the bid was better, just on politics.”

But a big job for a high-profile client near Decatur is giving Local 558 and signatory contractor Silman Construction a chance to prove the value of an organized, high skill workforce.

The client is Jack Daniel’s, producer of the bestselling American whiskey in the world. Last year, more than 11 million cases were sold, according to the company’s owner, Brown-Forman, nearly 4 million more than the next closest competitor, Jim Beam. And the demand is growing.

“That is one of the first jobs we’ve had in that part of the jurisdiction that I can remember, and I really have been impressed with how well it has been going,” said Local 558 Business Manager Ralph Mayes. “After the success Silman had at the Toyota Manufacturing Plant in Tupelo, Miss., I encouraged them to bid on this job and I think we have really changed some minds up there.”

Ramping up production of whiskey is no simple thing. Most of the ingredients aren’t that hard to come by: corn, rye, barley, yeast, sugar maple charcoal and clean water just about fills the bill, but increasing the supply of two other essentials is much harder to do.

A member of Sheffield, Ala., Local 558 installs the windlass machine which pulls the tips of the barrel staves close enough that a hoop can hold them together.

First you need time. It takes years of aging in charred oak barrels for the glorified grain alcohol that comes out of the stills to transform into the amber dram that puts a bad day in perspective and carries a good day’s glow long after sunset.

Unable to speed up time, Brown-Forman is making more barrels. They are the last distillery in the world, according to the company, to run their own cooperage. (See a remarkably cool video of the Louisville cooperagehere.) In 2013, the United Auto Workers at their Louisville, Ky., cooperage hand built almost 600,000 barrels. Even though every barrel will hold about 250 bottles of Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Herradura Tequila or Old Forester bourbon, it isn’t enough.

In 2012, Brown-Forman announced its intention to build a brand new, $60 million cooperage in Lawrence County, Ala.

“You don’t hardly ever see us getting this kind of work up here and when we started we only had about 30 percent of the job,” said Ozbirn, who was recently promoted to general foreman and electrical supervisor. “But now they don’t even bid out the work. They just come and tell me to get it done.”

Ozbirn estimates they now have done 90 percent of the electrical work on the project and he has a simple explanation why.

Photo courtesy Jack Daniel’s Distillery

“We have never missed a deadline and we’ve never had to redo anything,” he said. “That and the difference in skill is night and day. When anyone opens a panel, they know where we worked and where someone else did. ”

Ozbirn said that Local 558’s track record has helped open the door for other trades and now the pipefitter and mechanical jobs are all union as well.

Much of the work has been no different from any other manufacturing construction job: wiring, putting in lights, hooking up saws, planers and robots.

But bourbon barrels are more than mere containers. As seasons change over the years of aging, the barrels swell and subside, drawing the whiskey in and out of the wood. How the color and flavor change depends on how the barrel is prepared. To raise the barrel that yields Jack Daniel’s requires some highly specialized tools and processes.

Only American oak is used, toasted at 400° Fahrenheit to convert mouth-drying tannins into sugars and vanillin. Thirty-three staves per barrel are chosen and placed by hand. Coopers move more than 13 tons of wood every shift. Local 558 members hooked up the windlass, the machine that pulls the tips of the staves together and places temporary hoops over the ends. They set up the machines that steam, bend and shape the barrels before they are rolled over to the gas burners. A 1,500-degree flame chars the inside of the barrels for nearly half a minute, caramelizing the sugars like a roasted a marshmallow.

Photo courtesy Jack Daniel’s Distillery

The barrels heads are also toasted and charred before their beveled edges are rolled through a trough of melted beeswax. The heads are placed and three flat metal bands are driven home on each end, crushing the staves together with a force equivalent to almost 10 tons. The barrel is sealed. No glue. No nails.

“We didn’t have the conveyor system at first, but we are trying to step into that too,” Ozbirn said.

At the peak, more than a dozen electricians were onsite for several months. Production started in the spring, but more than half a dozen journeyman and apprentices are still on the job.

“We are still getting new work and there are already discussions about expansion that we are very optimistic about,” Mayes said. “We have really proven ourselves and think our signatory contractors will see quite a bit more work in this area.”

Ozbirn is also confident that word has spread in northwest Alabama.

“I think we are going to be bidding a lot more work and showing everybody what we can do,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if we are here and competitive.”

Clickhereto see an aerial view of the new cooperage.

Look onElectricTVfor an upcoming video on this subject.