South Carolina will crack the seal Wednesday on the only barrel maker in the state when Black Water Barrels cuts the ribbon for a plant at a 20,000-square-feet former Chevrolet dealership in Bamberg County.
The business will manufacture barrels from top-grade American white oak primarily for use in the bourbon industry, though owner Greg Pierce said he also will target wineries and breweries.
Black Water Barrels is a $4 million venture that will employ 21 workers to start, with plans to churn out 30,000 oak barrels a year with 60-gallon, 53-gallon and 30-gallon capacities. The plant, located on Main Highway in the town of Bamberg, will also feature a retail center where Black Water Barrel gear will be sold.
Tours will also be offered for visitors to watch the oak barrels being made, Pierce said.
“The closest plant you can actually see that being done in right now is a Jack Daniels plant in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and you can do that here in our facility. We’re trying to drive as much traffic through here as we can off the highways,” Pierce said.
Bamberg, a rural county south of Columbia with less than 16,000 residents, is the state’s fourth least populated county. Earlier this year, it had the state’s highest unemployment rate at 10 percent.
Pierce, a Columbia native, said he chose Bamberg because it was a listed by the state as a Tier IV economic development community, making businesses eligible for incentives for job creation and product development. He also likes the residents there. Tier IV counties are generally described as being the least developed in the state.
Zeigler Chevrolet, the town’s only new car dealership, closed its doors in 2014, after surviving 40 years as a family-owned business.
Gov. Nikki Haley, a Bamberg native, and S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt are expected to attend the opening.
Pierce said he plans to target distilleries throughout the Southeast for his barrels. He said his location in South Carolina will allow him to ship oak barrels to businesses in the Southeast less expensively than manufacturers in Missouri, where he said most businesses make their purchases.
Shipping costs can add about $25 to the cost of an oak barrel, Pierce said. Cooperages, or barrel makers, in Kentucky and elsewhere also have union workforces, he said. “We have a lot of competitive advantages here,” which also include the state’s shipping port at Charleston and abundant rail service, he said.
Oak barrels are in greater demand, Pierce said, and he is talking with international clients who are seeking the products, he said. Within 18 months of opening, Pierce said he hopes to ramp up production to 50,000 oak barrels. But the barrels will only be made after the oak ages one year in a warehouse in Barnwell.
Pierce spent 25 years in the spirits industry in various roles throughout the country, and people frequently asked him where they might acquire more oak barrels, he said.
Oak barrels are required by federal law to be used to distill liquors such as bourbon. And bourbon must age slowly over time to be successful, he said. White oak is impervious to liquids and has been the choice for ages to produce barrels, casks, fine furniture and more.
Columbia is forging a small distillery presence, and those are the types of businesses Pierce may seek to align with. Pierce said he has brought in top professional barrel makers to train his workforce.
“We have thousands and thousands of dollars worth of product that has to sit in these barrels for years, so the choice of a barrel is very important.”
Copper Horse Distillery, located in the Vista on Huger Street, has been in business in Columbia for four years. The company began manufacturing liquors in 2013 and started selling them in 2014. But, Copper Horse has sold no bourbon. That will change, owner Richard Baker said.
“It takes years of aging to make a really nice product,” Baker said. “That’s why choosing a barrel is so important, because it’s going to sit in there for years. You want to make sure that that product for the time investment comes out a decent product on the other end.”
White oak, which is impervious to liquids, has been used extensively for ship timbers, barrels and casks. Pierce said he gets his American white oak from Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Copper Horse uses a 53-gallon barrel and a 30-gallon made of American white oak from Louisville, Kentucky, and Minnesota. The Louisville cooperage Copper Horse purchases its barrels from get their white oak in Missouri, Baker said, while the Minnesota cooperage uses a white oak grown in The Gopher State.
At the appropriate time, Baker said he’d be open to looking at the quality of Black Water Barrels.
Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398