Bonds Stronger Than Oak
Barrel making, like whiskey distilling, requires hands-on knowledge, dedication to a time-honored craft, and producers who strive for perfection.
For many years, two of the cooperages Heaven Hill Distillery has shared that passion with are: Independent Stave Co. of Lebanon, MO and McGinnis Wood Products of Cuba, MO. Like Heaven Hill, each cooperage is family-owned and operated. Barrel making is a part of their heritages and, as succeeding generations are demonstrating, their futures.
Brad Boswell, the fourth-generation CEO at Independent Stave Co. (ISC), spent summers playing at his family’s cooperage, making forts from barrel staves.
He literally grew up in the business.
“I was associating the cooperage with things I enjoyed,” says Boswell. “So, working here isn’t a burden, I see it as a privilege to be part of what our family does.”
In September, when Heaven Hill President Max Shapira received the Parker Beam Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, Boswell, listening to the acceptance speech, recognized similarities in his and Shapira’s upbringings.
“He said he played at his family’s distillery as a child, that the experience was positive and was probably one reason why he loves his work,” Boswell says. “I understand exactly what he meant.”
Leroy McGinnis is another veteran of the industry, working in barrel-stave sales through the 1950s before founding McGinnis Wood Products in 1968. Watching demand for Bourbon return in the late 1980s, McGinnis wisely started a cooperage in 1987.
“The second load of barrels we sold back then was to Heaven Hill,” says McGinnis.
At age 94, he still works daily, though son, Don McGinnis leads the company. “Max gets all the Bourbon barrels we make. We like dealing with him.”
Both companies, McGinnis says, appreciate the informality required to do business together. Over an annual dinner, they meet, share their needs, agree on quantities and price, and complete the deal without a contract.
“It’s always been based on a handshake between us,” says Leroy McGinnis.
Family First, Second, Third …
Like Leroy McGinnis, T.W. Boswell made staves only when he founded his namesake company in 1912. His son, J.E. Boswell, joined him in 1933, which led to the company’s rebadging as Independent Stave Co. (ISC) in 1936.
Fourteen years later, ISC opened its first cooperage in Lebanon, MO, where J.E.’s son, John Boswell, learned the business. In the 1980s John became CEO and led ISC on an expansion run that saw it become the world’s largest maker of whiskey barrels, as well as the owner of production facilities on four continents.
Preparing to succeed his father as CEO in 2017, Brad Boswell had to learn the family business from the ground up. At age 9, he worked just a few hours each week, but his hours crept upward with each passing year. When he wasn’t playing sports or in school, he worked full time at ISC.
“When I was little, I did simple stuff, like restacking staves,” Boswell recalls.
But by age 16, he was a maintenance worker.
“That I learned every single job here provides some credibility. Craftsmen on the floor know I understand their jobs, which helps me be a better leader. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
Boswell loves working with family, but he also laughs at his father’s description of those occasional tense moments among the tribe.
“My father jokes that the family business ‘gets a little spicy, not mean, just spicy,’” he says. “When you’re winning with your family and those closest to you, it’s fun to enjoy those victories together.”
Boswell says the three generations ahead of him “cleared a pretty big path for me, so my job is to clear an even bigger path for the next generation.”
That includes his son, who tells him he’s more excited about the barrel business than he’s ever been.
“Talk about feeling good when your son says that!”
Don McGinnis says working with his father for decades only strengthens their solid bond. Still under his father’s mentorship, Don says Leroy trusts his decision making on large projects, such as a barrel factory now under construction.
“We travel together, go to timber sales together, and along the way we’ve become best friends,” Don McGinnis says.
That Heaven Hill shares that long-term vision for family interaction through ownership pleases Boswell.
Max Shapira’s children, Kate Latts and Andy Shapira, and son-in-law Allan Latts are already in leadership positions. “They’re like us, setting up the next generation for success,” Boswell says
Trust to Do the Right Thing
Despite a cooperage’s pursuit of perfection, flaws happen. Don McGinnis says Heaven Hill’s standards for its barrels are high because “they want the best they can get, and that’s what we want to give them.”
His father puts a slightly different twist on the rarity of those occurrences and how well they’re handled.
“They’re very blunt about any problems, plain and simple,” he says. “Heaven Hill has very good warehousemen who know what they’re doing.”
Boswell echoed that statement, saying Heaven Hill’s advanced methods of barrel storage and tracking are revolutionary, industry leading, and helpful to ISC.
“They track our barrels throughout the whole process and give us feedback on how well they perform,” he says.
“Heaven Hill is on the forefront of that. … That’s a great partner to have.”
To learn more about Independent Stave and McGinnis’ role in our Grain to Glass project, click the link below.
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