Craft alcohol is no strange subject in the Hudson Valley. In truth, it’s everywhere. It slips into conversations unnoticed, appearing in lunchtime talks about new breweries or small-scale wine producers.
Yet while discussions about beer, cider, and wine production are de rigueur nowadays, it’s rare that the discussions delve into the nitty gritty details behind the procedures. After all, it’s far more interesting to read about which flavor notes feature in that delicate new ale than it is to analyze the merits of one muddler versus another.
At least, that’s what we thought at first. Then we came across Quercus Cooperage, a veritable barrel-making business in High Falls. Owner John Cox is the cooper (that’s a person who makes barrels) behind it all. A self-taught artisan, Cox crafts the containers that house some of the Hudson Valley’s most beloved craft alcohol. Here’s how the craftsman, who was a woodworker for more than 25 years, built a career in coopering in the Hudson Valley.
Cox didn’t start out as a cooper, although he gained many of the skills he uses to this day from his first career as a woodworker. It’s a job he did for more than 25 years, starting from when 18-year-old self trained in Philadelphia in the late 1980s. After mastering his trade, he relocated to Brooklyn and opened a woodworking and cabinet-making shop.
“I’ve been working in wood shops for the past 31 years,” he says proudly.
Then 9/11 happened, and Cox decided it was time to relocate north of NYC to the Hudson Valley. He made the move, then quickly established himself as a go-to woodworker in the region, completing projects for places like Outdated Café and Stockade Tavern in Kingston.
Around the time Cox was making a name for himself as a custom fabrication expert, he heard about the shortage of barrels on the news. Because of the upswing in craft and cider distilling across the nation, the supply of barrels was coming up short with producer demand. Add to that the federal government regulation that American distillers can only use new charred oak barrels once, and the shortage had the potential to become a serious thing.
“I realized I was in the middle of craft and cider distilling [in the Hudson Valley]” he notes. Recognizing that the lack of barrels could have an immediate effect on the region’s craft alcohol producers, Cox decided it was time for him to learn exactly how one makes, ahem, raises a barrel.
Cox had never constructed a barrel before, but that didn’t stop him from trying the trade of the cooper. Since he knew there was no class or school he could attend to learn the niche art, he decided to take a stab at the construction process himself.
“I bought five barrels and took them apart and reverse engineered them,” he reveals. It helped that he had recently purchased an old set of coopering tools at an auction. “I was intrigued by the tools,” he says of his collection, which features tools that are distinct from traditional woodworking versions in order to accommodate the round shape and unique joint structure. Needless to say, Cox broke down his barrels and pieced them back together.
And he hasn’t looked back since.
A problem solver by nature, Cox knew he needed more information about coopering before he could begin his work in earnest. So he researched everything. From looking into the history of barrels in the Hudson Valley (hello, Matthew Vassar!) to reading up on production across the United States, he built a backlog of information for himself.
“Coopers used to be in every town,” he enthuses. “Whenever you see Cooper St, that’s where coopers were.”
Yet although coopering maintained a strong presence in America’s development and economy in the 19th century, it faded in the 20th century as industrialization and commercial production took hold.
Now, however, coopering is ready for its resurgence. And John Cox is here to make it happen.
After figuring out how to fit a barrel together, Cox set to work to make barrels of his own. To start, he selected a name for his budding business to honor the origins of coopering. Quercus, a Latin word, refers to the oak that is necessary to craft the vessels. More specifically, it’s quarter-sawn white oak that Cox sources locally, mainly from the Catskills.
As far as composition goes, the barrels rely upon a unique structure of staves, or vertical pieces, and two heads, or top and bottom pieces. No glue, nails, or screws are used to hold the segments together. Instead, Cox relies upon heat in the form of steam to loosen the organic structure of the wood and bend the barrel into shape. Once bent, the barrel is held in place with large iron hoops, then toasted to caramelize the cellulose inside the wood.
“It brings a flavor profile to the spirit that’s going to be in it,” the cooper explains. Depending on how long he toasts the wood, it can impart flavors as varied as honey vanilla or smoky chili.
Once he finishes the toasting phase, he proceeds to char the interior of the barrels at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 seconds. This step is what imbues whiskey with its distinct taste and signature caramel brown color.
As far as production goes, Cox can make two barrels a day, although he’s hoping to up that number to keep up with demand. He and his small team still do everything by hand, from fabricating bands and riveting them together to purchasing and aging the actual logs they use for construction. Notably, they also recoop barrels, a process that allows them to take empty, used barrels and retoast them for reuse.
“I’m one of the few people recouping here in America,” he says. He’s also one of the only people coopering in America since, by his count, he’s one of only 32 artisan coopers in the entire United States. While that number might be daunting, it’s also exciting, since it allows him to pursue a craft that he genuinely enjoys.
“I love math [and] I enjoy puzzles and figuring things out,” he explains. For him, the formulations and mechanics behind the barrels are part of the allure of being a cooper. If any number is off, even by the slightest bit, the whole barrel could end up as a wash.
Not that such a thing would happen at Quercus, of course. With over two years of coopering under his belt, Cox is a pro barrel builder. At his workshop in High Falls, he produces everything from Firkins, 10-gallon neutral barrels for beer and cider, to Trentas, 30-gallon barrels that are toasted and charred. He also crafts fermentation tanks for brewers and distillers and open-top kiokes for soy sauce and other fermented beverages.
Cox is part of the rare breed of coopers in the United States – and he knows it. That’s why it’s such a novelty for him to come across another compatriot in the coopering industry.
“I met an Irish cooper, and he and his six brothers studied it,” he says of one notable encounter. Although he recognizes he’s a rarity as an artisan, he’s also the first to admit that what he’s doing isn’t exactly new or cutting edge.
“I didn’t decide to reinvent the wheel,” he notes. “I’m using rudimentary 20th century furniture-making machinery. I decided to stay very true to the trade and the tools I had.”
Cox recognizes that he’s smack in the center of an industry that requires his particular skill set as a cooper. That’s part of what attracted him to coopering in the first place, after all. Now that he has the skills to supply that demand, he’s excited by the possibility of taking Quercus to the next level.
“We’re hoping to one day become more of a destination experience,” he reveals. “I do give tours, but I want to make it more accessible. I want to expand our production.”
Currently, most of his stock goes to Stoutridge Vineyard in Marlboro (which has over 200 of his barrels) and breweries like Arrowood Farm-Brewery in Accord and Yard Owl Brewery in Gardiner. Looking ahead, he wants to get his barrels in the hands of more Hudson Valley producers, who would be where they are today without the industry of coopers.
“Coopering was ubiquitous in our lives until the turn of the century,” he enthuses, noting that essentials like gunpowder, whiskey, and cement all relied on barrels for successful transportation on ships that traveled along the Hudson. For future coopers-in-the-making, he recommends following in his footsteps, at least in so far as to get a taste for the craft.
“Look at a barrel, take it apart, and figure out how it’s made,” he says. “there’s a reason I’m only one of 32.”
186 Mohonk Rd, High Falls