A&K Cooperage Barrel Making
Danny Orton assembles a barrel at A&K Cooperage.
By Taylor Fox
Cooper’s Oak Winery in Higbee is less than conventional. News clippings of Big Foot conspiracy theories line the factory walls where just a few employees hand-make more than five thousand barrels every year. While they work, they dance to country music over the roar of the machinery. Along with the art of barrel making is the art of paring wine, not with cheese, but comedy.
“Are you a son of a beach or a son of a birch?” Dale Kirby, owner, asks, swishing his own glass of smoky zinfandel wine. “Either way, your mother was the best piece of ash I ever saw.”
His son and co-owner Matt Kirby laughs along before flaunting a large tattoo on his left bicep depicting the company’s logo and three barrels, his children’s names inscribed on each—a sign of loyalty to the brand, he says.
The brand is comprised of a winery, wine-barrel cooperage, and now a whiskey-barrel cooperage. All are family owned and operated.
The oak whiskey-barrels, like the wine barrels, are all made by hand and are toasted over a fire and then heated in a kiln for thirty days before they are ready to store whiskey. Both wine and whiskey barrels imbue flavor to their liquid content, but their appearances differ.
“Wine barrels have to look like a piece of furniture,” Matt says. “Whiskey barrels, we only care about the inside.”
Matt is expanding into the whiskey industry because he says the large number of Missouri wineries is creating a watered-down wine business.
“Higbee is full of wine snobs now,” he says jokingly.
The whiskey-barrel cooperage will open this year across the street from Cooper’s Oak Winery, keeping all operations of the family business nearby.
“At the end of the day, we go over to the winery and have a drink,” Matt says. “That’s the best part of this industry.”