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Capturing spirits 

The (nearly) lost art of keg and barrel making in Hot Springs.

Walking up to Gibbs Brothers Cooperage in Hot Springs, the first thing you notice is the sharp, sour/sweet smell of drying oak. The scent pervades the place; has seeped into its pores and the dirt it stands on. The Gibbs family has been making traditional white oak kegs and barrels here since 1927. They've been building barrels in Hot Springs even longer, since 1909.

Jay Gibbs, who owns the business with his partner Dale Kight, is a fourth-generation cooper. Jay's great-grandfather, James Irwin Gibbs, ran hardwood mills in Tennessee, and came to Hot Springs soon after the turn of the 20th century to take the waters. He cabled back to his son, Jay's grandfather Ira Gibbs, that he saw enough white oak from the window of his train car between Benton and Hot Springs to make barrels for a year. White oak is crucial for wooden barrel making, because of the tight grain. A more porous wood like red oak would let the whiskey or wine soak right through. Soon, the father and son were living in the area, running portable steam mills in the hills around Hot Springs and using the wood to make staves — the slightly-beveled, carefully milled pieces that form a barrel.

Making a wooden barrel hasn't changed much over the years. Neither has the Gibbs Brothers factory. When you walk in, the first thing you see are stacks of finished barrels and raw staves, piled head-high throughout their vast warehouse with narrow trails running between. Down at the far end of the warehouse is the machinery for making barrels, built during the golden age of steam, but run now by a tractor engine on a stand. Long power-shafts spin in the rafters. Cloth belts whip through pulleys, taking torque from the engine to the shafts, which transmit it down through clutches to cast-iron machines from another age: lathes, massive worm-screw jacks, mechanical presses with long, delicate fingers for pressing on barrel hoops to keep the staves tight and in place.

In one corner, inset into the wall, is a brick alcove with a round grate in the floor. After rough-finishing a keg, but before adding the top and bottom, a worker drops it over the grate and steps back. He hits a valve, and a jet of yellow flame roars through the new wood. After a minute or so, the valve is shut, and the keg extinguished. Inside, the smooth, dry white oak is charcoal now, steaming, cracked and black — the tabula rasa of good whiskey to come.

In his office, sitting at the big double desk once shared by his father and uncle when they ran the business, Jay Gibbs says that even in lean years, such as when charcoal-aged spirits like whiskey fell out of favor in the early 1990s and the current recession, the small kegs and barrels Gibbs Brothers specializes in have helped them stay profitable. In the grand scheme of things, the kegs made at Gibbs are mostly petite: one, two, three, five, 10, 15 and 35 gallons. A standard whiskey or bourbon barrel, which Gibbs Brothers hasn't made since 1969, is 52 to 53 gallons. The majority of those are made in automated factories in Kentucky and Tennessee.

While bigger barrels largely go to commercial distilleries and wineries, Gibbs said his kegs mostly go to spirit makers like Little Rock's Rock Town Distillery that produce smaller quantities. "What has helped us after a few lean years is these small craft distillers," Gibbs said. "They're popping up everywhere. Small batch, single barrel."

It takes whiskey at least three years to age in a large barrel, but craft distillers using smaller kegs can sometimes go from whiskey still to finished product in six months to a year because of a small keg's higher ratio of surface to volume, Gibbs said. Too, while larger barrels can only be used once (many of the bigger distillers then ship them to Scotland or Ireland, where they're used to age scotch) the smaller kegs can sometimes be used twice, then sold again to small craft breweries who like to use them to impart a stronger flavor to stouts.

Gibbs also sells barrels to small wineries, which are sometimes very particular about the way the barrels are made so as not to impart any "weird flavors" to the wine. For example, Gibbs said that though coopers have experimented over the years with gluing together the round "heads" on the top and bottom of a wooden barrel, wineries insist on the more traditional use of "flagging" in the joints — a dried reed that grows in bogs in upper New England and peels off paper-thin like an onion.

Gibbs agrees that there's something special about doing the same job his great-grandfather did, in the same place, with the same tools. In a mass-produced world, there is something beautiful about what they do at Gibbs Brothers — something not unlike a glass of good whiskey or wine. Gibbs said that while most everything is harder than it was in the old days — harder to get good white oak, harder to find customers, harder to keep the ancient, cast-iron machines they depend on running — the niche market they've found is strong enough to keep them going for years to come. New orders from craft distillers come in every day. They've got another unusual market as well: the movies. Some of their barrels and kegs were bought as set dressing for the "Pirates of the Carribean."

"It means a lot to me," Gibbs said. "I get a little emotional, because it means a lot to me. There were times when it looked like we weren't going to be able to keep going. Right now, and I don't want to be too optimistic, but we've kind of turned the corner a little bit."

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