Barrels rolling at Speyside Plant

New wooden barrels are rolling off the assembly line in large numbers at the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage Plant in Jackson and it appears this is only the beginning of a very positive economic development story for the local area.

The new plant, which is located in the same building as the former Merillat Plant at 960 East Main Street in Jackson, produces specialized wooden barrels used by the bourbon industry. After working for more than a year to redesign and reequip the plant for its specialized purposes, actual production of the barrels began this past June.

Speyside Bourbon Cooperate General Manager Darren Whitmer shared some very good news about the early progress at the plant and much other positive information at a private open house which was held Wednesday, September 14. The event was attended by state, regional, and local governmental and economic development leaders as well as the plant’s partners, vendors, and all the employees.

“It’s been a long journey for us,” Whitmer told the audience of more than 100 guests. “It’s taken us two years to do it, but we did it. Thanks to everybody in this room who helped get us there. It was truly a team effort.”

Whitmer provided an overview on how and why the Jackson site was chosen, what had to be done to get the facility ready for production, and the importance of the support the company received from state, regional, and local economic development and governmental agencies.

Other speakers during the brief program were JobsOhio Senior Director Kristi Tanner, Jackson Mayor Randy Heath, State Senator Bob Peterson, and State Representative Ryan Smith.

Since regular production began about three months ago, the workforce has grown to 53 employees. Whitmer said the production work and business end are both going very well and the plant has already reached its initial goal of producing 400 barrels a day which he called “Phase 1 capacity.”

“We are already looking at Phase 2,” Whitmer told the group. “We’ve got some sales work to do, but we’re working on it.” After the program, Whitmer told The Telegram the expansion would involve adding a second shift and essentially doubling the daily barrel production from 400 to 800.

Prior to the program, guests had the opportunity to take a self-guided tour through the production area of the plant while actual work was taking place. Handouts explained the entire production process, the equipment, and the functions of the assembly, heading, and finishing departments.

Following the program, the guests and employees were treated to a lunch buffet provided by Rowdy’s Smokehouse of Jackson with a dessert of frosted cake provided by Jonda Dunn’s Sweet Treats and Catering Service of Jackson.

How Speyside Chose Jackson

Speyside Cooperage Limited, a Scottish-owned company, has been producing bourbon and whiskey barrels made of American Oak since 1947. It was acquired by a French-owned company, the Tonnellerie Francois Freres Group (TFF), in 2008. Speyside has one plant in the United States, which opened in 2010, and is located in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, just south of Louisville.

As Whitmer recounted, in the spring of 2014, the owners decided to start producing new wooden barrels for the bourbon industry. Initially, the brain trust identified a prospective green field site in Kentucky near the other U.S. plant and near where many bourbon distilleries are located.

Holzer Medical Center
However, before any final decision was made, the empty Jackson plant came under consideration for some good reasons. In neighboring Pike County, wood products entrepreneur Ed Robbins could easily supply the needed natural resource, the Appalachian White Oak hardwood, through one of his companies, Ohio Valley Veneer. Moreover, the building in Jackson was not only available and in excellent condition, but it had been previously used for wood production, namely the building of kitchen cabinetry.

When the Speyside officials took a closer look at the potential Jackson site, they received a lot of support, cooperation and incentives from economic development professionals and governmental leaders at all levels.

“The more people we met, the more we felt welcome,” Whitmer recalled. “People wanted us to come here. There was also a workforce here and some of the infrastructure could be used.”

State, regional and local economic development officials helped facilitate and seal the deal by providing both financial incentives and hands-on support to Speyside and the proposed Jackson project. The Jackson County Economic Development Partnership (JCEDP), the 29-county Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth (APEG) and the state-level JobsOhio were all involved in this successful effort. Jackson City and Jackson County government leaders also were supportive of the project. As it turned out Robbins, who had purchased the building, worked out a long-term lease agreement with Speyside to occupy the building.

Once the Jackson site was chosen and the project began, Whitmer described the work of local contributors, contractors, and vendors as “fantastic” and added, “we tried to use local people as much as we could.”

Among the local vendors publicly acknowledged on the printed program were: Cotner, Cooley, Clark & Sharp CPAs, Dave’s & Son Cleaning Service, Edward Jones Investments of Jackson, Geiger Brothers, JSM Design, Montgomery Machine Shop, Romar Fabrication, and SOS Electric.

“We were able to put this place together in record time,” Whitmer said proudly of the process of redesigning and adapting the plant facilities.

Officials Make Comments

Senior Director Tanner stated that JobsOhio was pleased to support the Speyside project and also credited the work of the APEG representatives and of the local JCEDP staffers, Director Jennifer Jacobs and Assistant Director Sam Brady. She also acknowledged Jackson area resident Larry Kidd, who is a JobsOhio board member.

She was especially pleased with the fact that an existing plant building is being reused and that a regional product (Appalachian hardwood) is being used to produce the product.

“The renewal side of this story is just absolutely fantastic,” she remarked.

In his remarks, Mayor Heath indicated he felt getting Speyside to come to Jackson was a major breakthrough considering the loss of jobs which resulted when the Meridian and Merillat plants closed in recent years and the Meridian building was later demolished due to its poor condition.

“We were all extremely scared,” Heath recalled. “We did not want to see this building disappear. We wanted this in Jackson and we needed this in Jackson. I believe this (the Speyside plant) can be the anchor for our future in Jackson County. This gives our community a future to believe in.”

Both State Senator Peterson and State Representative Smith were pleased with the economic development success story taking place in Jackson and the teamwork it took to make it happen.

Peterson commented, “This was truly a collaborative effort to get this building going.” He then presented Whitmer and the plant with a resolution of congratulations.

Smith declared, “This is an extremely exciting day and we’re talking about expansion soon.”

From The Telegram  |  September 19, 2016