Making Wooden Barrels

American Artisans, Odd Jobs, People
on May 1, 2013
Bruce Crummy Heidi Karasch, one of the nation’s few female coopers, is the president of Black Swan Cooperage in Park Rapids, Minn.

Only 25 years old and one of the nation’s few female coopers, Heidi Karasch builds barrels “born from wood, fire and steel” inside of Black Swan Cooperage, her family-operated business in Park Rapids, Minn. (pop. 3,709).

More rare than a black swan, Karasch is unique to the industry—because of her gender, her age, and her product, according to Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute.

“It’s probably the smallest cooperage in America, but the quality of its barrels are among the best,” says Owens, 74, of Hayward, Calif.

A few hours of watching Karasch at work reveals why.

Clamping narrow strips of American white oak inside of an iron hoop, Karasch balances the emerging shape of a whiskey barrel between her thighs until 23 precisely measured wooden boards fit snugly together.

In less practiced hands, the precarious balancing act known as “raising the barrel” might look more like a game of pickup sticks than a demonstration of the centuries-old artisan trade of coopering, or barrel-making. But with the skill of a second-generation cooper, Karasch nimbly pushes a second—and larger—iron hoop midway down the boards, known as staves, helping give the barrel its shape.

“Now this goes into a vat of hot water for 15 or 20 minutes to soften the wood,” explains Karasch, noting that bendable staves will emerge. “Then it’s wound into a barrel shape.”

Karasch grew up with sawdust in her hair while sweeping floors at the home workshop of her father, Russ Karasch, 50, a cooper for more than two decades near St. Paul, Minn. At age 13, she began a seven-year apprenticeship with her dad and, at age 22, became president of Black Swan Cooperage.

Karasch opened Black Swan in 2008 in a rental building in Eagle Bend, Minn., where she and Russ used hand tools to build two barrels a day. Today, she owns a 10,000-square-foot steel building in Park Rapids where 17 employees handcraft 40 barrels daily using methods that have remained essentially unchanged since Colonial days.

Workers include every member of Karasch’s immediate family. Her mother, Mary Ann, 55, is the office manager, while her brother, Jacob, 22, helps with production of the barrels used to age whiskey, wine and other spirits. Her sister, Rebecca, 17, sweeps the floors during breaks from school, and Whiskey, Heidi’s 2-year-old German shepherd, serves as Black Swan’s unofficial greeter.

“She’s hard-working. She sets her mind to doing something and she does it,” Russ says with pride about his daughter’s youthful success.

Blending old and new trade techniques has helped position the cooperage for success. “They’ve found a niche with its patent-pending [honeycomb] method that allows for more saturation of the wood’s oak notes into the liquid,” Owens says.

By drilling a honeycomb pattern into some of the barrel staves, Karasch and her fellow coopers speed the aging process of spirits to between 60 days and six months instead of the typical two to three years.

Black Swan’s products are built to be watertight. Their insides are toasted with fire to caramelize the wood’s natural sugars, which flavor whiskey, wine and other spirits, then charred with fire and compressed air so the barrel can filter impurities from the alcohol.

“They don’t just take some wood and shape the barrel and off it goes,” says Orlin Sorenson, 36, co-owner of Woodinville (Wash.) Whiskey Co., a Black Swan customer since the company’s inception.

“They have put a tremendous amount of research, thought and development into their barrels that helps micro-distillers like me,” Sorenson says. “We can make a fantastic product but, arguably, 80 percent of what you taste is from the barrel.”

Such testimonies encourage Karasch to keep building quality barrels.

“I’ve been around barrel-making my entire life,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything different.”