What happens to the thousands of used Kentucky bourbon barrels after the distinctive amber-colored beverage is removed and bottled for our enjoyment?
Some are exported to other countries and reused to make scotch, Irish whiskey, rum and tequila, but no Kentucky bourbon barrel is ever used to make more bourbon. It’s a one-time-only deal for the virgin, white-oak barrel. The barrels are often available for sale to the public for whatever use they may find.
Now, an amateur craftsman is finding delightful ways to turn old bourbon barrels into fun, handy products for the home and kitchen.
Tony Davis of Lexington owns Studio 300, located in an unheated old building at the former James E. Pepper Distillery off Manchester Street. Inside he’s dismantling bourbon barrels that once held 53 gallons of product. They’re generally 36 inches tall and 24 inches in diameter at the widest middle point. They weighed about 110 pounds new, or 125 pounds after they’ve been used for bourbon. Why the weight difference? They retain moisture from the bourbon they once contained.
Davis is salvaging the round oak barrel lids, the staves (narrow strips of wood around the body) and the six double-riveted steel hoops that bind it all together.
“I work with most of the distilleries in the state, but most often with Buffalo Trace in Franklin County,” said Davis, who admits he’s not an artist but someone with a passion for Kentucky icons.
Working with a young volunteer intern, University of Kentucky forestry student Jarrod Keltner, Davis fashions some clever pieces.
One is a lazy Susan, which comes from the barrel top for Elmer T. Lee bourbon. Lee was a master distiller — a scientist, if you will — who was honored with his own brand name. His likeness and stylized signature are stamped into the oak barrel top. Attached to the edge of the lazy Susan are eight horse figures, the bottle stoppers from another Buffalo Trace product, Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, which make these tabletop pieces more than a little unusual.
Another piece is a cutting board created from barrel staves from several distilleries. “We use non-toxic, food-safe, tight-bond glue and paint it by hand on each joint,” Davis explained. “We put the pieces back together and then vise it for 48 hours. We then cut them by hand and sand them. We don’t use a stain, but shellac. I also want to be able to symbolize the history of this barrel by saving the original burned-on stamp with names, dates and images.”
Davis also builds easels out of bourbon barrels for painters or lovers of art to display works. He has been asked to panel someone’s “man cave” with bourbon barrel staves. He’s made a wine rack or two. Davis usually has six or seven project ideas swirling in his head.
Keltner enjoys the variety of work in the shop.
“It’s being able to create whatever you want,” he said. “We have days when we’re working on cutting boards, and then we switch to figuring out a new product.”
While in the Marines at Camp Pendleton in California, Davis toured Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wine country.
“I knew some artisans from attending their shows,” he said. “They were creating practical pieces for homes from wine barrels.”
When Davis returned to Kentucky, he toured various bourbon distilleries and formulated his ideas. In Kentucky, he didn’t see much of the craft work he had seen in California.
Davis grew up in the area of Lexington’s Seventh Street. He remembered receiving toys when he was a boy from the U.S. Marines who sponsor the annual Christmas Toys for Tots program. He was impressed and joined the Marines himself as a young man, touring 18 countries in the Middle East. When he returned stateside, he vowed to help others. That’s why he mentors Keltner.
Davis’ recycling efforts aren’t limited to staves, hoops and lids, either. Yet another bourbon barrel byproduct gets a second life — the ash from inside the oak barrels. Davis scrapes it out, still full of the aroma of bourbon, bags it and sells it under the brand name Bourbon Barrel Grillin’ Charr. Outdoor cooks can place it in a little aluminum foil container and set it on their lighted grills next to meat, fish or vegetables. The bourbon-flavored smoke envelopes the food when the grill’s lid is closed, infusing it with flavor.
Liquor Barn carries Grillin’ Charr bags, along with many of the other bourbon barrel pieces.
“We’re big supporters of Kentucky-made products, whether barbecue sauce, rib rub or Kentucky-made wine and bourbon,” said Brad Williams, director of merchandising and head buyer for Liquor Barn stores. “Anything from Kentucky has a tie-in. Whatever is made from bourbon barrels is a natural for Liquor Barn. They’re good-looking pieces. We’ve sold thousands of them in nine stores in Kentucky.”
Williams added you can’t find Davis’ curious pieces just anywhere.
“My mom hangs one of the cutting boards on her wall just as a decorative piece,” he said.
For Davis, it doesn’t matter much how his pieces are used, as long as they help people to appreciate the rich legacy of the Bluegrass.
“I just want people to know I’m from here and to keep our culture alive,” Davis said, “and that’s bourbon, horses and basketball.”