The story behind the barrel head
You’ve likely heard us say every barrel has a story. We say it all the time because it’s true.
Every barrel that finds its way to the Midwest Barrel Co. warehouse is authentic. They’ve aged fine spirits, such as bourbon and whiskey and wines. This means most barrels that reach us are, at the very least, a couple of years old – most often much more.
We take these journeys seriously. We’re all about honoring and passing on those stories to everyone who will listen. We place so much emphasis on stories because they illustrate the amount of effort and craftsmanship somebody has poured (both figuratively and literally) into the barrels at every stage of their lives.
And who doesn’t appreciate a good story?
Where the story begins
Our whiskey barrels are shipped to us directly from American distilleries of various sizes, many in Kentucky and Tennessee, while the wine barrels arrive from the heart of wine country in California.
Every barrel picks up truly unique characteristics and qualities from the start. It all begins with the oak tree – most often American oak – that’s selected and taken to the cooperage. These coopers all practice their craft a little bit differently, too, so differences even emerge at this point.
From the cooperages, the barrels are sent out to different distilleries and wineries, where they will be used to age their first ever beverages. Some distilleries will reuse the barrels several times, depending on the spirit they're making. However, many other barrels, including those that age bourbon, are only used once (for bourbon, it's the law!).
Once a distillery or winery is done with a barrel, they're often sent to a broker, such as us!
The next step on a barrel's journey is usually a craft brewery or similar location where they will be refilled with a beverage for aging purposes. However, quite a few others are set aside as furniture-grade. These can be used to build furniture pieces, home decor, art and just about any DIY idea your imagination can dream up.
Even as decor, these barrels’ stories continue. There’s no better example of this than our personalized, laser-engraved products, including heads.
Why we retire certain whiskey
and wine barrels
During our vetting and inspection process, some barrels are retired from aging beverages.
These might have a few very small flaws or could simply be too old to age a liquid. Our liquid-grade barrels are guaranteed to be leak-free for 30 days after we send them out. If there’s any sign that they won’t hold liquid, then they are retired to be sold as furniture and decor.
Now, just because a barrel is retired doesn’t mean it’s not in otherwise good shape. We’re just not 100% sure it’ll hold liquid, so we don’t leave anything to chance. This can, in fact, result in some pretty darn good-looking barrels being sold for decor purposes.
Our custom engraved barrel heads are a great example of this.
The barrel’s story continues
Furniture and decor barrels may not be destined for another round of aging beer, spirits or wine, but that doesn’t mean their story has ended.
The opposite is true, actually.
Again, just take a look at our custom design barrel heads. They are personalized and laser engraved to tell another story – the customer’s story. They can be put on display in a home, office or business, showing off their new, customized design that conveys its own meaning and tells its own story for as long as it is displayed.
We take care during our design and engraving process to honor both the story that has already been told and the one that will be told next.
The design and engraving process
Each engraved head, whether from a wine barrel or a whiskey barrel, begins as a full-sized barrel.
Once it’s ordered, an MWBC crew member selects a barrel that’s been retired to be used as decor and gets to sanding. This removes any markings that may not be attractive or don’t add much appeal, such as numbers or other marks made in permanent marker or paint by the distillery.
After the head is sanded, we screw the rings into the staves near the head (one ring for whiskey, two rings for wine barrel heads). This helps keep everything secure.
Remember, barrels are only held together by pressure. There aren’t any screws or nails holding things together. However, screws are needed once you start to cut into the wood.
With the screws in place, the head is removed from the rest of the barrel. With whiskey barrels, we’ll then remove excess char and add some supporting hardware to make sure it’s easier to hang on display. We’ll also use wood glue in many cases to keep the head together.
While our woodworkers are getting the head prepped, our artists are putting the finishing touches on the customer’s selected design or personalized artwork. By this time, they’ve OK’d the design with the customer and are just about ready to set up the laser engraver.
Once the design is finished, our team gets the barrel in place and sets up the laser engraver to do its thing! The actual laser engraving doesn’t take too long, but the amount of time can depend on the complexity and size of the design.
When it’s down, our team readies the head to be picked up or shipped securely to the customer’s doorstep.
Watch a barrel go from full-size to a ready-to-hang, engraved head
How barrel heads can be customized
What kind of story a customer wants their barrel head to tell largely depends on the design. We have a variety of designs for engravings that fall into themes, including beer and bourbon, family name, home decor, holiday, wedding guestbook, wine and logos.
Of course, we’re ready to work with a completely custom design, too! Either way, these heads all turn out unique and worthy of prominent display.
However, there are a few things that we won’t do, including peoples’ faces and anything that is protected by copyright or trademark. For more information, you can read our engraving FAQs.
If you’re ready to dream up your custom barrel head, then take a look at our engraving options. We look forward to working with you!