Bourbon Country Crafters: DrunkWood's John King - The Whiskey Wash

Bourbon Country Crafters: DrunkWood’s John King

By Maggie Kimberl / February 9, 2016

Because bourbon has to be made in charred, new oak cooperage, people have been looking for creative ways to reuse the empty barrels for decades. Just about every house you drive by on Kentucky back roads has a bourbon barrel planter full of flowers, but in recent years people have been getting more creative with them. The Whiskey Wash recently caught up with John King of DrunkWood, a small business that transforms used barrels into furniture and decor:


image via Drunkwood

1. How did you get started with DrunkWood?

I had reached out to David Pierce, who was head brewer at New Albanian Brewing Co. at the time (now at Bluegrass Brewing Co.), about obtaining one of his emptied barrels. I had this wild idea to try and make a smoker to smoke meat. After some trial and error, I finally figured out how to make one and got about a year and a half out of my original barrel. After almost burning down my house, I’ve since stopped making them.

From there, I started acquiring more barrels from other breweries and some staves from Kelvin Cooperage to make tables, wine racks, and other odds and ends and posted them on my personal Facebook page. I typically only made gifts for my friends and was just doing everything out of the backyard of my Highlands residence. Not really trying to make a profit, just for fun and beer money actually. After getting more requests, I decided I need to name whatever the hell I was doing. I came up with a few and went with the one my then-wife disliked the most.

To this day, I still do DrunkWood out of my backyard, shed, or garage. I like to keep things small and personal by only doing custom orders. Also, I don’t have much storage. I get asked all the time if people can come to my shop and see my work, I always tell them, “Sure, just watch out for my dogs poop in the yard”. I don’t have any work in any shops or retailers because I want the pieces priced in a way anyone can afford them. From coast to coast, people overcharge the shit out of anything made from bourbon staves. I laugh sometimes when I see prices on certain pieces. My style is pretty rustic and basic, some people are doing some amazing things with barrel wood.

2. What is your favorite piece you’ve made so far?

Damn, that is a tough one because I am pretty critical of my work. I’ve made about a dozen giant Kentuckys and there is something about every one I don’t like. I received a random email from a lady named Louise about commissioning a piece for their brand new distillery. Since we are seeing a craft distillery boom here, I assumed it was in Kentucky. A few emails later, I found out it was a new distillery in Ireland, Chapel Gate Distillery. They are located in County Clare, Ireland, so I did a barrel stave piece of that county and also plan on shipping them out a giant barrel stave outline of Ireland. Was really hoping I would get flown out to install it, but alas.

3. Have you ever gotten any strange requests?

Well, with a business named DrunkWood…Um, yeah. The best thing about being your own boss is you can turn work down or just refer elsewhere to some of the other people in the area doing stave work (Shout out to Art from Ashes and Curry’s Beer Crafts).  People will see a lot of bourbon stave stuff around town and a) ask if its mine, or b) ask me to make it. If I get asked to make something exactly like they saw somewhere else, I usually turn it down. I’m in this business for fun, it’s not my full time job, it’s just a hobby. When that hobby doesn’t become fun anymore is when I will hang it up and look into a new venture.

4. You also make benches and tables out of reclaimed barn wood. Is furniture what’s next for Drunkwood?

Reclaimed barn wood benches and tables are probably my most requested items. It’s the hot ticket item now-a-days. I did about a dozen last year and didn’t have a garage at the time, which made for a lot of filthy language on rainy day. I literally had the table under a 10 foot popup tent, and would have to wipe dew off every morning so it didn’t damage the sealant. These are probably the most rustic-type items I do. I warn people prior that this is old barn wood, it may not be 100% straight or flat, it’s gonna have some character to it. If you want perfect wood, go to Lowe’s. I mean, what sounds better: reclaimed wood from an old New Albany fire station, or Lowe’s off the Dixie?

Also, with the success of Maple and Oak batch #1, I look to double or triple the production of it for next fall.

5. As the Executive Director of the Kentucky Brewer’s Guild, you’re really into craft beer. Do you have a favorite bourbon barrel finished beer?

Very good question. I’m going to avoid anything local here and go with a couple favorites of mine.

  • Fremont Bourbon Barrel Abominable (Coffee and Cinnamon). It’s an American Strong Ale, which is my favorite type of beer.
  • Bourbon Barrel Aged Plead the 5th, an Imperial Stout that clocks in at 11%.

Years ago, I’d name all the Top 50 beers in the world I had to try. Nowadays for me, it’s more about the experience with the beer that makes it better, not just the beer itself. A beer is good, but sipping on a beer while looking down from a mountain summit makes it even better.

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