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Roll out the barrel

Russ Karasch takes a drink of coffee from his barrel-shaped coffee mug. Root beer barrels sit in a bowl at the front of Heidi Karasch's desk. Even the German shepherd pup roaming around is named Whiskey.

For the Karasch family, owners of Black Swan Cooperage in Osage, life is all about whiskey barrels.

The cooperage, or barrel-maker, is one of only 22 left in the United States.

Heidi Karasch picked up the trade from her father, Russ, who has been making barrels for nearly 20 years.

"It's definitely a unique type of job," she said. "It's something that I wanted to keep going."

If being a cooper is a unique trade, then being a female cooper is even more extraordinary.

"As far as we know, I'm the only female cooper in at least the Midwest," the 23 year-old said.

With only 22 cooperages in the U.S., Heidi said whiskey -- and other barrels -- are in high demand. Some whiskey makers like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels have their own in-house cooperages, she said.

"The amount of liquor that's made in this country is ridiculous," she said.

Russ learned blacksmithing and wheelwrighting many years ago, and said coopering just fit right in.

He first started his own furniture and cabinet shop while still in high school. He then went on to build log homes, and eventually started a re-saw shop making staves for a barrel-maker in St. Paul. When the barrel-maker went out of business, he bought the business and moved it to Avon, Minn.

"I've just always found it fascinating -- taking a pile of wood and making something water tight without glue or any fasteners other than the hoops," he said. "I love making things. Absolutely life couldn't get much better, especially with my family being around."

And having his family by his side at work is a dream come true for Russ.

"How can life get any better?" he said.

Heidi takes care of the marketing, sales and customer service for the business. Her brother, Jacob, works in the shop and mother, MaryAnn, helps out with paperwork and in the office. The Karasch's youngest daughter, Rebecca, is still in high school.

"Hopefully, she'll join us in the business, too," Russ said.

Black Swan Cooperage moved its operation from Long Prairie to Osage in October of 2010.

The process

To make a Black Swan barrel, quarter-sawn rough white oak is purchased, ripped and molded to round the surface. The staves, the thin, narrow, shaped pieces of wood that form the sides of a barrel, are then cut to length, shaped and the inner cuts are made.

The staves are then arranged using two hoops and bent into the barrel shape. Russ said there are three different ways to bend the staves -- fire, water and steam. Black Swan uses the water method, where the unbent barrel is soaked in hot water before being bent into shape using a winch.

The barrel is then toasted and charred, which will give the alcohol its taste. The heat from the toasting process caramelizes the sugar in the wood, Russ said.

"The heat makes it so the sugars we want are more readily available," he said. "The most important part of the barrel is right here. Absolutely. If you don't have a good-tasting barrel, you're out of a job."

The barrel is then fitted with a cover, permanent galvanized steel hoops are screwed in, and a bunghole is bored and a bung fitted. Heidi then paints Black Swan Cooperage's logo on the top of the barrel, and it's ready for a spirit.

A new kind of barrel

Black Swan Cooperage boasts a new way of aging and flavoring whiskey in their barrels. They have a patent pending for the first-ever honeycomb patterned barrel.

All of Black Swan's whiskey barrels are made from white oak, which gives the spirit its distinctive flavor. Over the aging process, the whiskey soaks into the wood of the barrel and absorbs the sugars in the wood. Alcohol penetrates at least eight times faster into the end grain of the wood than it does the side grain, Heidi said.

To aid in this process, coopers would make horizontal cuts on the inside of the slats used to create a barrel. Black Swan found their honeycomb pattern, instead of horizontal cuts, speeds the aging process for the whiskey while giving the same taste as a more aged whiskey in a non-honeycomb barrel.

"By exposing that end grain in there, it makes the penetration process go a lot faster," she said. "And that's worth a lot of money to distillers and beer makers and wine makers, alike."

Russ said Black Swan tested some of their honeycomb barrels, leaving the whiskey to age just 60 days. The flavor on that whiskey was scored the same as top-shelf whiskey that had been aged in another barrel for three to four years, he said.

"They're finding out with these alternatives that they can make young bourbon taste as good or better than the straight bourbon and they can do it in one-tenth the time," Russ said.