A bourbon barrel maker plans to create 125 new jobs in Smyth County while investing $26 million to refurbish and equip the old Merillat plant in Atkins. Just down the road at Highlands Business Park in Glade Spring, the same company -- Speyside Bourbon Cooperage Inc. – plans to create 35 new jobs and put $9 million into a new companion stave mill facility that produces the barrels’ narrow wooden staves.

The announcement came from Gov. Ralph Northam Friday afternoon.

Maggie Anderson, who is in project development for Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, said the company plans to begin work in the next couple weeks on both operations. “Work will begin right now,” she said.

Anderson said the Merillat plant, having previously been used for wood manufacturing, is a good fit for Speyside’s work. The plant possesses many elements that can be used by the cooperage.

Speyside, she said, is hopeful that both operations, which will ramp up simultaneously, will be fully operational in about a year’s time.

Anderson estimated that the cooperage will begin operations with about 50 employees while the stave mill will need 35 to operate.

“For the cooperage,” Anderson said, “the average annual salary will be $30,000 with a great benefits package that includes insurance, matching 401K, vacation and eight holidays.” 

Anderson said that Southwest Virginia was attractive because of the work ethic of employees and their commitment to the company’s type of work, which she described as “still an artisan craft.”

Watching the barrel making is like magic, she said, noting that it is a blending of man and machine.

Anderson lauded local and state officials for their work on the project. She said Washington and Smyth officials made it possible for the company to locate its facilities in the region. She emphasized “how very excited we are to be coming to Southwest Virginia.”

The project, Anderson said, came together like “slipping on a good shoe.” “It couldn’t have been a nicer experience,” she said. She estimated it has been in development for about a year.

Anderson also lauded state officials for their assistance. After locating an operation in Bath County, she said, Speyside felt so good about Virginia that it wanted to expand in the commonwealth.

Northam did note that the commonwealth competed against West Virginia to win the economic development project.

The company’s roots and corporate headquarters are in Europe.

Speyside Bourbon Cooperage Inc. is an offspring of Speyside Cooperage Ltd., founded in Scotland in 1947. In 2008 Speyside Cooperage was sold to the Tonnellerie François Frères Group, a publicly held company founded in 1910 and headquartered in France. The company operates stave mills and bourbon cooperages in Kentucky, Ohio and Bath County.

“Speyside Bourbon Cooperage is expanding its footprint in Virginia just two years after announcing its first operation in Bath County, a neat testament to the commonwealth’s business advantages and access to markets,” said Northam. “This global company’s new facilities in Smyth and Washington counties will be a significant economic boost to the region, and we look forward to working with our state partners to facilitate the company’s success in the commonwealth.”

 “This major win is a tremendous example of state, regional, and local collaboration to secure Speyside Bourbon Cooperage’s newest supply and production facilities in the U.S., and will have a positive impact on Smyth and Washington counties, Southwest Virginia and the commonwealth,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “The projects also demonstrate the value and efficiency that Virginia’s robust logistics infrastructure adds to companies’ supply chain management. We thank Speyside for its significant investment and 160 new, 21st-century jobs.”

Beyond the direct job creation, officials noted that Speyside Bourbon Cooperage’s operation will benefit Virginia’s forest industry, including loggers and landowners. It has agreed that the stave mill will procure approximately 80 percent of the white oak logs used for stave production from Virginia growers.

Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring also said that this “project fills a critical gap in the spirit industry supply chain and through Speyside’s handcrafted barrels, Virginia-grown forestry products will be a part of making craft beverages all around the world.”

Bourbon barrels must be new, made of white oak, and then charred on the inside, explained Anderson. The bourbon must be stored in the barrel for two years to earn the label bourbon, she said.

Speyside Bourbon Cooperage General Manager Darren Whitmer also expressed excitement about the company growth and lauded state and local officials. In the governor’s press release, he was quoted as saying that “the communities that we are working in have been very welcoming. Logistically, the access that Virginia has fits our business model, and from a resource standpoint, Virginia cannot be beat. All of these factors have played an important part in leading us to Virginia, and we look forward to a long and prosperous future here.”

Smyth County officials were particularly excited about the project.

Board of supervisors chairman Todd Dishner said, “On behalf of the Smyth County Board of Supervisors and the citizens of Smyth County, I am excited to welcome Speyside to our community and region as a whole. We are very pleased with the decision to locate one facility here in Smyth County and a second facility in Highlands Business Park, which we partner with our good neighbors from Washington County in the Glade Spring area. Together, we are looking forward to beginning what is sure to be a win-win relationship for both our communities and Speyside moving forward.”

 Washington County Board of Supervisors Chairman Saul Hernandez reflected, “The people of Washington and Smyth counties hit a home run today with the location of Speyside to our communities.”

The Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, and Virginia’s Industrial Advancement Alliance worked with Smyth and Washington counties and the Smyth-Washington Regional Industrial Facilities Authority to secure the projects. Gov. Northam approved a $325,000 grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund to assist Smyth County with the cooperage project and a $200,000 grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund to assist Washington County with the stave mill project. The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission approved a total of $510,000 in Tobacco Region Opportunity Funds for the projects.

The company is also eligible to receive state benefits from the Virginia Enterprise Zone Program, administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, and for Sales and Use tax exemptions on manufacturing equipment. Funding and services to support the company’s employee training activities will be provided through the Virginia Jobs Investment Program (VJIP).

 “On behalf of the Smyth-Washington Regional Industrial Facilities Authority (SWIFA), it is a pleasure to welcome Speyside to Highlands Business Park,” said SWIFA Chairman Henry Snodgrass. “Speyside’s development of a stave mill facility represents an impactful supply chain investment in our region, and we are excited to be a part of helping the company bring new job growth and investment opportunities to our residents.”

 “This project is a sure win for both Smyth and Washington Counties, as well as the entire Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Smyth County Board of Supervisors member and SWIFA Board member Curtis Rhea. “Speyside, and its operations, will go a long way in filling a void that exists within our area and provide the necessary opportunities for citizens to live, work, and play here within our communities. Thanks to all those involved in this process and especially the leadership and visionaries within Speyside for making this happen.”

The region’s state legislators, delegates Jeff Campbell and Israel O’Quinn and Sen. Bill Carrico, also heralded the project, celebrating the regional cooperation and the positive economic benefits.

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