GLADE SPRING, Va. — The Speyside Bourbon Stave Mill has operated quietly and efficiently in Glade Spring for more than a year — the first of its kind anywhere in the world. On Thursday, company officials gave state and local leaders a look at their proprietary process.
Mill Manager Chris Bailey said Speyside “created a new way of making staves” — the necessary wooden side components of bourbon barrels. The state-of-the-art mill in the Highland Business Park produces thousands of staves each day. Once complete, the narrow pieces of wood with a slightly beveled edge are sent up Interstate 81 to Atkins in Smyth County, where Speyside’s cooperage transforms them into barrels. The Atkins plant is working toward its goal of producing 800 barrels a day.
Bailey explained that it takes 33 staves to make one barrel. The need for the multiple stacks of white oak logs outside the plant quickly becomes evident — or as Bailey quipped, “So, you see we will be busy making staves for a very long time.”
The stave mill opened in March 2020, just a few weeks before the pandemic struck. While the company had to delay its ribbon-cutting until Thursday, the plant kept working.
“During that time, we produced roughly 12,000 staves a day, which allowed us to create the necessary inventory for Atkins to have when they resumed production earlier this year,” he said.
During the pandemic, the Atkins plant did lay off its workers, but Maggie Anderson, who oversees project development for Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, said the layoff was unique for the company. While other companies regularly adjust staffing for the bottom line, she said, anyone who gets a job with Speyside keeps that position.
According to Bailey, the operation has an annual payroll of $1.85 million.
Mill employees gathered for the ribbon-cutting and received praise from officials.
Dwayne Ball, Washington County Board of Supervisors’ chairman, told them that he knows the work is hard, but “you do a very neat craft here.” Ball, who has a background in forestry, described the mill as a good operation.
Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Bettina Ring praised Speyside for overcoming the challenges of the pandemic. Noting that she previously served as a state forester and that agriculture is the commonwealth’s number-one industry and forestry is number three, Ring said, Speyside’s stave mill and cooperage were “tremendous wins for the region.”
Ring also celebrated that the white oak — the only wood that can be used to make bourbon barrels — is sustainably managed and the company works to protect the environment.
Bailey explained, “We collect the dust and chips (an inevitable byproduct of a sawmill) and sell them to landscapers, to large companies for their biomass programs or to composite furniture-makers to be used in the production of their products. We use the remainder of that dust in our own boiler system for heat.”
The Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Inc. awarded Speyside its Certified Legal and Sustainable designation for its sustainable log buying practices.
Highlands Park, a partnership of Smyth and Washington counties, is owned and managed by the Smyth-Washington Industrial Facilities Authority. Officials from both counties were among those celebrating Thursday.
Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, spoke of the rarity of one company impacting two counties so much with one connected project. He pointed to the 160 individuals employed in Atkins and Glade Spring combined.
“I’m grateful Speyside had the foresight to locate here,” the legislator said.
One of those employees, Anthony Denton, of Abingdon, sat in the breakroom on a meal break after the ceremony. This month, he celebrated his first anniversary with the mill.
Denton acknowledged that the work is fast-paced and challenging, but he smiled and said, “You never get bored.”
Bailey hopes others looking for work will put in their applications. He’d like to get all four lines on the mill floor running and later add a shift to the Monday through Friday operation.
He acknowledged that the work is hard, but he said, “We’re a small company that’s family-oriented. We have a good time, and we treat people right.”