Cooper's Craft: The Bourbon that Honors the Barrel Raisers

Bourbon barrels being charred at the Brown-Forman Cooperage. Image: Kelly Magyarics

A new brand honors the men and women who create the barrels that give bourbon its character.

Bourbon whiskey that's fresh off the still is colorless and – except for its alcohol burn and subtle corn notes – pretty flavorless. It's only after time spent resting in the barrel that it mellows and picks up its brown-amber color and signature flavors of caramel and vanilla.

That's where the coopers come in.

Louisville, Kentucky's Brown-Forman Cooperage, which has been making barrels since 1945, is the only cooperage owned by a distillery. There are 33 staves to each hundred-pound barrel, and in just 45 seconds an expert raiser (barrels are technically "raised," not "built") can spot and select the staves that fit perfectly without leaving gaps or forcing them in. Last year, the company launched Coopers' Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon, their first new bourbon brand in 20 years. The name honors these artisans and the work they do. Recently, I headed to Louisville to explore this new whiskey, which is designed to be approachable and wallet friendly, touted for both the bourbon newbie and the enthusiast to drink straight, on the rocks, or mixed into simple cocktails.

Coopers’ Craft is a special new bourbon that celebrates 70 years and counting of barrel-making history,” said Heather Howell, director of emerging brands for Brown-Forman. “This is a bourbon that can only be made by one of the oldest, leading whiskey makers in the world because what matters most, we do ourselves.”

Cooper's Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon bottle by Brown-Forman
Attribution/Copyrights: Brown-Forman

The bourbon is matured in barrels produced at the Louisville cooperage. The liquid undergoes a proprietary beech and birch charcoal-filter finishing process after it’s matured to give it a smooth finish and let barrel flavors shine through, before being bottled at 82.2 proof. Its light amber hue is joined by aromas of lightly toasted and fresh oak, baked apple pie and tangy citrus custard; the palate follows the nose, and also shows a touch of spice, while the finish is rich, smooth and fruity.

With a suggested retail price of $28.99, Coopers’ Craft works as an entry to the bourbon category. It’s also great as a base spirit for easy, summery cocktails, as it has just enough oomph and character, yet at the same time remains versatile and highly mixable with a variety of ingredients. (Admittedly, the brand reps told me, it’s not designed for uber “crafty” sips with lots of ingredients, syrups or bitters like you’d find in ambitious cocktail bars; its mild-mannered flavor profile makes it more of a sit-around-the-campfire or take-it-to-the-beach bourbon.)

It also happens to work in the kitchen, when you want a whiskey kick but might be less than enthusiastic about marinating chicken or making salad dressing with a $50 or $75 bottle. During a class at Cooking at the Cottage, a retail store recreational cooking school in the city’s Vogue Center, chef Whitney Fontaine gave us helpful tips related to cooking with Bourbon. She suggested using a brand in recipes that you would also drink (just like with wine), and avoiding pouring it directly out of the bottle when it’s in a flambéed recipe (lest the flames travel back from the pan to the bottle.)

All of Fontaine’s creations used Coopers’ Craft, starting with a bourbon take on the Bloody Mary. Acidity is a perfect match for bourbon-based drinks or dishes, she told us, which tend to have sweet and smoky notes, so skipping the vodka in the tomato and citrus brunch libation totally works. Since Tabasco can actually have a blueberry undertone (think about that next time you taste it), Fontaine used gochujang to add sweet heat to the drink. She also served us an iced tea and lemonade Bourbon Slushie. Though she blended it, froze it in a container and scooped it out to serve, I thought it could just as easily be mixed and frozen in Ziploc baggies, and toted in a cooler on the boat or to the beach. Now that’s a recipe for easy summer bourbon fun.

 

 

Quittin’ Time

Recipe courtesy of Brown-Forman

  • 6 parts Sweet tea (made with black tea and sweetened with honey)
  • 2 parts Coopers’ Craft Bourbon
  • Mint sprigs, for garnish

Add the sweet tea and bourbon to a pitcher packed with large ice cubes and mint. Stir to combine. Serve over ice in Collins glasses garnished with a mint sprig.

 

Rusty Pale bourbon cocktail featuring Cooper's Craft - Cooper's Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Attribution/Copyrights: Brown-Forman

Rusty Pale

Recipe courtesy of Brown-Forman

  • 5 oz. chilled local IPA
  • 2 oz. Coopers’ Craft Bourbon
  • 0.25 oz. Fresh lemon juice
  • 0.25 oz. Demerara syrup
  • Dash Hellfire Habanero Shrub

Combine all ingredients in a pint glass, and stir to combine.

 

Bushel & Barrel bourbon cocktail made with Cooper's Craft - Cooper's Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Attribution/Copyrights: Brown-Forman

Bushel & Barrel

Recipe courtesy of Brown-Forman

  • 1.5 oz. Coopers’ Craft Bourbon
  • 1 oz. Spiced peach shrub (see Note)
  • 0.25 oz. Demerara syrup
  • 0.25 oz. Lemon juice
  • 2 oz. Soda water

Add the first four ingredients to a cocktail shaker, add ice, and stir. Strain into a highball glass filled with fresh ice, top with soda water, and garnish with a lemon wedge.

For the spiced peach shrub:

Combine 1 cup chopped fresh peaches with 4 tablespoons sugar, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, and ¼ teaspoon ground ginger. Let macerate for 30 minutes. Add 1 cup apple cider vinegar and transfer mixture to a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator for a few days, shaking once or twice per day. Use a sieve or cheesecloth to strain out solids, and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.

 

Bourbon Slushie cocktail made with Cooper's Craft - Cooper's Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Attribution/Copyrights: Kelly Magyarics

Bourbon Slushie

Recipe courtesy of chef Whitney Fontaine; serves 12

  • 3 cups Brewed tea, cooled
  • 1 cup Coopers’ Craft Bourbon
  • 1 cup Granulated sugar (or less, to taste)
  • 6 oz. Frozen orange juice concentrate
  • 6 oz. Frozen lemonade concentrate
  • 6 oz. Frozen limeade concentrate

Mix tea and sugar in a blender, add concentrates, and blend until smooth. Pour into a freezer-proof container, add bourbon, and mix thoroughly. Freeze for 24 to 48 hours; to serve, scoop into glasses.

 

Bourbon Bloody Mary bourbon cocktail made with Cooper's Craft - Cooper's Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Attribution/Copyrights: Kelly Magyarics

Bourbon Bloody Mary

Recipe courtesy of chef Whitney Fontaine; makes 6 cups

  • 6 cups Tomato juice
  • 0.25 cup Prepared horseradish
  • 2 tbsp. Gochujang paste
  • 3 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tsp. Celery salt
  • 1.5 tsp. White pepper
  • 3 cups Coopers’ Craft Bourbon
  • 2 tbsp. Tajin seasoning
  • 2 tbsp. Sugar
  • 2 oz. Pasteurized egg whites
  • Garnishes: caramelized bacon, olives, celery, lemons, limes

Mix the first 6 ingredients together and chill overnight. Mix the Tajin and sugar together in a small bowl. Dip glass rims in egg whites and then the Tajin mixture, and set aside. When ready to serve, mix bourbon and Bloody Mary mix and pour over ice into the prepared glasses. Garnish as desired, and serve.

 

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.