Barrel maker infuses ancient art with high-tech

MAMC lends hand with workforce needs

The first thing visitors notice on entering West Virginia Great Barrel Company in Caldwell is the aroma. The sweet smell of freshly hewn wood mingles with the smoky scent of toasting and charring white oak to waft throughout the modern manufacturing facility.

Then there is the technology: Complex conveyor systems, computer-controlled machinery, gigantic robotics that whirl and twist throughout the cooperage. Barrel making has existed since at least 1900 BC Egypt, but West Virginia Great Barrel Company deploys the latest advanced technology to make some of the most sought-after whiskey barrels in the industry.

The business was born from the depths of tragedy. A June 2016 flood devastated the region, leaving 13 people dead and hundreds homeless. A group of civic-minded community members sprang into action. They raised money, convinced the nearby town of White Sulphur Springs to trade flooded lots for higher ground and engaged volunteer relief groups to build a neighborhood for those who had lost their homes.

But the group wanted to do more. They realized that to make a positive and lasting impact, they needed to create good paying local jobs. Thus, West Virginia Great Barrel Company was born.

Today, the Greenbrier County manufacturer employes 235 individuals at its cooperage and stave mills. Men and women work in tandem with advanced technology to produce barrels from plentiful, sustainable, tight-grained Appalachian white oak. “If we’re going to do it,” the owners decided, “let’s innovate the cooperage process. Let’s build the best-performing barrel on the market, but let’s do it safely. Let’s do it consistently. Let’s do it precisely.”

Plant Manager Bryan Lucas said the company expects to churn out 175,000 barrels by the end of 2023, with plans to ramp up production to 225,000 barrels next year and 250,000 by 2025. The majority of the barrels serve the Kentucky bourbon industry, though Great Barrel also produces containers for whiskey, wine and other spirits and ships products globally.

“Our level of technology and commitment to detail allows us to produce the highest quality bourbon barrel on the market with the lowest leak rates,” Lucas explained. “With a highly automated facility, it is easy to believe that this should mean less people. In actuality, this type of facility can require even more people with a different skill set.”

That can be challenging. “There is an abundance of talented people in the Greenbrier Valley area,” Lucas said. However, because of the region has little advanced manufacturing, individuals’ skills often don’t align with the complex know-how that Great Barrel requires to keep the advanced technology running safely and efficiently while consistently turning out its high-quality product.

To bridge the skills gap, Great Barrel recently turned to the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center (MAMC) for assistance. MAMC operates Apprenticeship Works, the National Advanced Manufacturing Apprenticeship Partnership, which helps such manufacturers as Great Barrel develop the talent they need through a grow-your-own approach.

Funded entirely through a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL), Apprenticeship Works helps companies develop registered apprenticeship programs, specific to their operations, in more than 20 industrial occupations.

Apprenticeship Works employs an industry-vetted and DoL-endorsed framework to create specific skill sets, combining on-the-job training with supplemental online instruction. MAMC also provides onsite train-the-trainer services, acts as a liaison with DoL and assists with record-keeping and reporting. The cost is covered by MAMC’s DoL grant.

Shawn Riddlell is the first Great Barrel apprentice. He has been employed by the company for four years as a barrel raiser but has begun transitioning to a full-time apprentice as part of the maintenance and reliability department. With MAMC’s assistance, Great Barrel now has in place a proven system to develop the skilled talent it requires as an advanced manufacturer.

Lucas anticipates adding additional apprentices. “We want to start slowly and build our processes, but we felt this [Apprenticeship Works] is a great way to improve our skillset and want this to be a major part of our operation going forward,” he explained.

MAMC Director Derek Scarbro describes West Virginia Great Barrel Company as a shining example of modern manufacturing in West Virginia. “A group of civic-minded individuals with a passion have created a 21st century company that leverages the latest technology to produce world-class barrels while creating much needed jobs for their community,” Scarbro said. “We’re proud that company leaders have entrusted us to help meet their workforce needs so they can continue to grow and prosper.”

To learn more about West Virginia Great Barrel Company, visit www.wvgbc.com. For information about Apprenticeship Works, contact MAMC’s Carol Howerton at or 304.781.1680.

Dec. 28, 2023

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