Speyside Bourbon Cooperage officials were feeling the love Thursday morning.
At 11 a.m., officials from Smyth and Washington counties gathered at Highlands Business Park in Glade Spring to celebrate the ground breaking at the site of the company’s future stave mill. The $9 million mill is slated to create 35 jobs with production expected to begin as soon as August.
At the same time, the governor’s office announced that the company would expand its manufacturing operation in Bath County, adding a second shift, creating 45 new jobs and investing another $114,000 in that plant. Speyside has been operating in Bath County for a year.
Like the mill being constructed in Glade Spring will do, the Bath County site manufacturers white oak staves (the narrow wooden staves that make up the sides of barrels) and headers for bourbon barrels.
Initially, Jim McCoy, manager of Speyside Bourbon Stave Mill in Virginia, said the Glade Spring plant will start with one shift. However, he mentioned that a second shift could be possible in the future.
That shift, McCoy said, will produce enough staves and headers to produce 500 barrels a day using about seven million feet of white oak annually.
Those barrel components will be shipped to Speyside’s cooperage, which is under development in the former Merillat plant in Atkins. There, workers are expected to produce 100 bourbon barrels an hour.
Bourbon barrels must be new, made of white oak, and then charred on the inside. Speyside has agreed that the stave mill will procure approximately 80 percent of the white oak logs used for stave production from Virginia growers. That’s a $13 million commitment.
“Speyside has quickly become one of our leading forest products industry partners in the commonwealth,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “Their use of Virginia white oak has created tremendous opportunities for forest landowners, and the fact that they continue to expand their operations here is a sign of their success and commitment to our forest products industry.”
McCoy noted Thursday that the availability of timber was a key factor in the company’s decision to locate in Southwest Virginia. He also noted the area’s proximity to Tennessee and Kentucky, where most of the company’s barrels are put to use.
McCoy hopes the Glade Spring mill will be fully staffed between August and mid-September.
While officials only broke ground ceremonially Thursday, heavy equipment broke ground for the mill last week. That was a relief to Washington County Supervisor Eddie Copenhaver, who represents Glade Spring. “I’ve worried every day ‘til the dozers moved dirt the other day,” he said, adding, “I’m looking forward to the first barrel.”
To produce that first barrel, work is also moving ahead at the Atkins operation as the company renovates the plant. Speyside had earlier acquired a former Merillat plant in Jackson, Ohio, which is helping this renovation go smoothly. “There’s not a lot of surprises,” said Maggie Anderson, who is in project development for Speyside Bourbon Cooperage. However, she said, former Merillat employees wouldn’t recognize the plant’s interior.
The company is advertising for a plant manager and maintenance technician for the Atkins cooperage and a stave mill maintenance supervisor and office administrator for the Glade Spring site.
For the cooperage, Anderson anticipates that Speyside will start recruiting its initial 55 workers in September. The number of employees is expected to grow to 150.
Some workers, she said, may be brought in early to install equipment and become familiar with the operation.
She described the work as being done partly by hand and in part by machinery designed by the company’s team. The barrels, she said, incorporate “the craftsman’s soul with modern technology.”
Speyside will work with the Virginia Employment Commission and other agencies to hire its staff and it will announce openings on its Facebook page for the Atkins plant. That Facebook page already has more than 430 followers. The response has been wonderful, said Anderson. “We feel the love.”
She said its Speyside’s desire to be part of the community.
Todd Dishner, chairman of the Smyth County Board of Supervisors, reiterated the community’s support of the company. “We’re super glad to be part of this. We love it. We hope you feel the welcome.”
Several officials emphasized the cooperative partnership between Smyth and Washington counties that helped bring this economic development project to fruition.
Governor Ralph Northam said, “The company’s significant footprint across Virginia is a strong testament to our business climate, robust supply chain, and skilled workforce. We look forward to Speyside’s continued success in the commonwealth, and thank the company for choosing to reinvest in Virginia.”
Speyside is benefiting from a worldwide boom in the bourbon market that has experienced double-digit growth in recent years.
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.
While international, Anderson said the company offers a family atmosphere. It was family business in Scotland that was bought by French family business.
The name Speyside comes from the River Spey in Scotland, which runs near where the family built its first operation.