Fulfilling a burning desire

October 1st, 2018

By Kimberly Trupps Truesdell | For The Journal Gazette

One second.

It's the difference between 15 seconds and 16, the difference between a really great glass of bourbon and a bitter glass of liquor.

It's that difference, the fine line, that has Matthew Lipsky standing behind his shop on the northwest side of Fort Wayne with a stopwatch in one hand and a hose in the other, watching the flames tower over him.

The one second could mean the difference between a perfectly charred bourbon barrel and one that's unfit to use, flakes of ash and soot falling to the bottom, destroying six hours of work.

“(A lot of people) don't realize how much the barrel makes a difference,” says Lipsky, co-owner of Anne-Grey Cooperage. “A lot of the flavor for bourbon, in any new barrel, they say 60 (percent) to 80 percent of the flavor is from the barrel. ... Three quarters of the flavor is coming from the barrel – that's kind of a big deal.”

Handcrafted

The morning light peeks through the buildings of the nondescript industrial park off U.S. 33. Clad in a pair of cargo shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, Lipsky carries on a conversation in front of Anne-Grey Cooperage.

Behind him, the garage door is open and a pile of wood lies on the floor. It looks unassuming, like any other lumber, but it is white oak, seasoned three years in open air, and the start of what will be small-batch spirits barrels handcrafted by Lipsky.

Anne-Grey Cooperage, which has been in business about a year and a half, produces 1.5-liter, 1-gallon, 5-gallon and 15-gallon barrels for craft distillers in the area and across the country. From Three Rivers Distilling Co. locally to Edwin Coe in Churubusco to Oakley Brothers Distillery in Anderson, Lipsky is providing barrels to support the growing craft spirits movement.

Everything is done by hand, and what isn't is done with machines that Lipsky fabricated himself for the cooperage.

“We still hammer our rivets by hand on an anvil, an anvil from the 1850s,” Lipsky says. “Everyone (else) uses hydraulic presses.

“I have huge calluses from swinging a hammer. It's a long cry from getting manicures and expensive haircuts.”

Changed man

The man in the picture, the one with the navy suit, striped shirt and paisley tie, is posed casually but professionally. A small smile crosses his face, and his hands are folding gently in his lap.

The man in the picture, staring out from a post on Instagram, is a different person, Lipsky says. And yet, it is him.

“I lived in Chicago for a long time, where I was a different person,” he says.

Working for high-end restaurants and swanky hotel chains such as the SoHo House, the Texas native went to work in suits and ties with $500 shoes on his feet – a far cry from the person standing in Anne-Grey Cooperage.

He spent his time managing people, tasting and scoring independent spirits for the Beverage Tasting Institute and lecturing about whiskey. He would fly to Scotland to sample and select whiskeys for independent bottlers, who would bottle the scotch and sell it.

His interest in spirits began when he was living in Fort Worth, Texas, making a living as a freelance artist, when he picked up a weekly bartending shift by chance.

The neighborhood bar, a place where you would order a beer and a shot, was close to the art museums and Lipsky was a regular.

While he didn't have any knowledge of bartending, he quickly picked it up and began to study up on the differences between spirits and what makes bourbon, well, a bourbon.

“Over time, I did art less and bartending more,” Lipsky says. “I did that for years and got really into it. I started reading books and being more passionate about bourbon and spirits. I got to a point to where that's all I did.”

Looking for a more upscale bartending scene and encouraged by a friend in the Windy City, he sold most of his possessions, packed up his Jeep and headed north.

As he describes it, “I started bartending there and really surprisingly blew up. Quickly.”

But life as one of the “it” bartenders in Chicago doesn't just come with a wardrobe expense and the chance to serve celebrities such as Katy Perry and Harry Styles. There's stress and long hours, and it's a lifestyle that's not always accommodating for a family.

Taking next step

“We had a kid. That's the story right there,” Lipsky says matter-of-factly.

The decision to leave Chicago came down to whether Lipsky and his wife, Patti Nix, wanted to raise their daughter in the city or in the place where Nix had grown up.

“I was tired of working for someone else's dream, especially when I already made it in Chicago,” Lipsky says. “So before we even moved, I was, like, 'What are we going to do here?'”

The pair could have opened a restaurant or bar, as Nix also worked in the bar industry in Chicago, but for Lipsky, there seemed to be an obvious progression.

“I thought barrels would be the next step ...” he says. “And there's not any place that's making hand-crafted, small-batch barrels. It's a lost art.”

There are no books on coopering, the process of making a barrel. There's no “coopering” major and what was traditionally a long apprenticeship; it's now challenging to even find someone to learn from.

So Lipsky had to teach himself.

He watched Japanese YouTube videos and learned about different schools of coopering. He scoured the internet to find any bits of information that he could piece together. He even found a couple of basic classes at Tillers International, a nonprofit based in Scotts, Michigan, that funds educational farming practices in Africa.

“I really had to persevere, but I really felt like I was being pushed in that direction from the universe,” Lipsky says. “So who am I to argue with that?”

Gratifying work

It took Lipsky months before he could make a barrel in a production manner.

“There was a lot of failing,” he says. “ A lot of messing up. A lot of making mistakes. Learning the hard way. ... I made a barrel by hand on a saw horse, but that takes at least a week if you're not very good.”

But once he was able to create one barrel, one water-tight, rounded vessel that began as a flat piece of wood, he took it to Three Rivers Distilling Co.

While he was hoping to just sell the barrel, he was able to create a relationship with the founders, and the support enabled him to begin Anne-Grey, a name that is a combination of his wife's and daughter's middle names.

“We struggled and scraped everything together. We didn't take out any bank loans. We started this on a shoestring budget,” Lipsky says. “And we've been making barrels for a year and a half.”

The cooperage can produce up to 100 barrels a month, but it varies depending on orders.

But each barrel starts as a piece of lumber in the pile like the one on the floor of the building. Lipsky “blanks” it, making it square, before creating a stave. The staves are the planks, so to speak, from which the barrel is made.

Lipsky also has to make the top and bottom caps to the barrel, creating notches for the heads to sit in, and the hoops, which are made from metal.

If he is off, even by a hair, during any part of the process, the barrel is “just trash, and it can be really frustrating. I've thrown a lot of hammers.”

“We have machines that are big, but it's definitely an art form. We don't have it down to a science,” Lipsky says, adding that most of the machines were fabricated in-house, specifically for coopering.

A barrel, which is usually made in a group, can take six hours to make before it meets the fire outside the building.

Distillers can choose whether it's toasted or charred, but 100 percent of the color comes from the barrel, and most choose the darker finish.

The shop is three hours away from Chicago, but to Lipsky, timer in hand, it's a world away – and one he doesn't regret leaving.

“I have to be creating something. I think it's just my personality,” Lipsky says. “Whether it was art on a piece of clothing or art on a canvas or art in the form of beverages, making cocktails ... everybody needs an outlet.

“Working with your hands is very gratifying, when you can be done at the end of the day and say, 'I made this from a pile of wood.' It's just a skill that doesn't exist anymore. To take flat wood and make something that's circular and bends and is water-tight, it's very fulfilling at the end of the day.”