The news came as a shock to Mike Bentley when, in 2013, Masco officials announced that its Merillat cabinetmaking subsidiary in Jackson would close at the end of the year. Bentley had 36 years with the company, rising from a 22-year-old electrician in 1977 to maintenance supervisor.
Bentley wasn’t the only one affected by the decision. More than 180 workers found themselves out of work. It was one more closing in a region that had seen too many shutdowns, too many job losses.
Then, the tide turned for Bentley and his coworkers.
Masco officials asked Bentley to maintain the shuttered plant while the company looked for a buyer. When Ed Robbins, CEO of several lumber-based companies, bought the building, he, too, asked Bentley to stay on and care for it. Finally, in 2015, Scotland-based Speyside Cooperage signed a lease with Robbins to operate a bourbon barrel-making facility in the empty plant. The company hired Bentley.
Speyside’s decision to open a plant in Jackson gave Bentley and dozens of other Jackson-area workers – some of them former Merillat employees – a new lease of their own.
Speyside Meets Growing Demand for Bourbon Barrels
Speyside has provided the whisky industry – scotch makers in Scotland and bourbon makers in the U.S. – with barrels made of American oak since 1947. Acquired by France-based Tonnellerie Francois Frères Group in 2008, Speyside established its first U.S. cooperage in Shepherdsville, Ky., in 2010.
Until Speyside signed its lease with Robbins and opened Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, the company’s primary business was refurbishing used barrels for use around the world. The cooperage in Jackson, for the first time, puts Speyside in the new barrel business – the result of a growing demand from U.S. bourbon distilleries.
But it almost didn’t happen. According to Darren Whitmer, general manager of Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, the company had originally planned to put the new plant in Kentucky and was just a step away from closing the deal.
But while on a trip to Ohio to consider lumber sources, Speyside officials met with Robbins about his companies, Taylor Lumber and Ohio Valley Veneer. Robbins said he had not only an abundant source of high-quality white Ohio oak, but also a vacant building in Jackson that might serve Speyside’s needs – the former Merillat site. Robbins encouraged the Speyside officials to contact APEG and JobsOhio.
“We started meeting some people from Ohio – the JobsOhio folks, the APEG folks – and started really finding out what was available to us,” Whitmer says. “The facility had a lot of the infrastructure that we needed and there were a lot of good potential employees to choose from. The more we met people from the state and community, it slowly started to make sense to us.”
Speyside signed its lease in May 2015. Since then, it’s been full speed ahead. The bourbon cooperage started production in May 2016, making 20 barrels a day. In June and July, the count was up to 200 barrels a day, and by November, 400 barrels a day – half of the company’s targeted goal of 800.
“If the market continues to grow like it is right now, maybe we even go to 1,000 or 1,200 barrels,” Whitmer says.
Jackson Mayor Randy Heath says Speyside brought some relief to a hurting community. “When other people were leaving, these people said we believe in you and we believe in the workforce,” Heath says.
Meanwhile, Robbins has seen his own business grow, having opened a new stave mill in Waverly to supply the new cooperage.
“We’ve got two shifts going and 50 employees,” he says.
As for Bentley?
“Come May 28 of 2017, I will have been in this building for 40 years,” he muses, seemingly surprised by his own words. “I would have gladly retired from Merillat. It was a great company to work for. Speyside though, to me, is a greater company to work for. It’s brought jobs back to the community.”