Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper

Having come of age in the 90s, my association with the word “cooper” is skewed by the T.G.I.F American family sitcom, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. Mr. Cooper, a NBA player-turned-substitute teacher and gym coach, is the star of this sitcom.  He doesn’t actually have anything in common with a cooper.

A cooper is someone who uses wooden staves to make containers designed to hold liquid; they are often associated with making barrels to age and store alcohol.

Our “Mr. Cooper,” Bob Hockert, is the founder and Master Cooper at US Barrel in Wilmington, New York. This rustic wood shop turned cooperage, sits in the shadow of White Face Mountain. In 2004, after retiring from a career in IT on Wall Street, he inexplicably began hand coopering enormous barrel shaped cedar saunas, fermentation tanks, rain barrels, brine tanks, and to the delight of craft spirits enthusiasts, charred white oak barrels for aging spirits.

Our first contact with Bob came by way of the Stowe Farmers’ Market, Summer season 2013. Bob’s sister and brother-in-law have a house in Stowe, Vermont and one fine market day, Bob’s brother-in-law stopped by our table and gave us Bob’s card.

To the delight of Ryan Christiansen and Todd Hardie, the figurative needle-in-the-hay-stack had been found.

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Coopering is a dying art, and although the name U.S Barrel sounds big and grand, Bob’s operation is quaint and very authentic. He employs a father-son-team, with a genuine focus on precision, quality, and craftsmanship.  This is a small operation, with a lot of attention to detail.

When we reached out to Bob and explained our vision for sourcing American White Oak from Vermont to be handcrafted into barrels for our fine whiskey, bourbon, and Tom Cat Gin, he indubitably obliged.

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We invited Bob to meet up with us at the mill, where the American White Oak is cut and handled in a very precise manner. Toby, the sawyer, must skillfully quarter saw the oak in order to properly orient the open pores and grain so that the barrel will not leak. Knotted or gnarled wood is immediately sorted from premium oak sections for this very reason.

In the words of Bob Hockert, “This oak is a cooper’s dream, with perfectly straight, tight grain and a sweet, highly fragrant nose.  Being here during sawing, you can just smell the whisky and bourbon in the air – this is a wonderful stand of timber. How long it’ll take to dry is anyone’s guess, but a good estimate would be in the 9-12 month range. Allowing the wood to age naturally in the open air will enable it to develop its own localized and unique flavor profile. This, along with minerals and soil conditions these trees grew in, will impart a distinct flavor which will differentiate this whiskey from any produced elsewhere.”

Stay tuned for our whisky launch and Tom Cat Gin special releases aged exclusively in Vermont White Oak Barrels made by our very own “Mr. Cooper,” a.k.a Bob Hockert.