Welcome to this edition of Perspectives, our look at the fabric of our city and what makes Louisville so interesting and full of possibilities. It’s our take on the trends and events in town, what’s happening and when, and why it’s important to you. I’m Greg Fleischaker, your host, reminding you to like and share your favorite episodes on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and if you really want to help us spread the word, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It really does help.
In this week’s episode of Perspectives, brought to you by Louisville’s luxury real estate brokerage, Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty, I’m speaking with John King, the owner and founder of DrunkWood, an urban bourbon barrel and reclaimed barn wood décor business.
John, good to see you. Thanks for coming in today.
Greg: It is very nice. I appreciate you coming in. I’m curious about what that means, what is an urban bourbon barrel and reclaimed barn wood décor business?
John: It’s basically a name that you can’t say so I just tell people I’m DrunkWood and I work with barrels and stuff. What it is is … Let me give a little history first…
John: Maybe six years ago, through the beer industry I came upon a bourbon barrel and I was like, “What am I going to do with this?” Eventually I made it into a table. Then I got the idea to get a couple more bourbon barrels and then for people’s weddings and things I decided to look on the internet at what people have made. A majority of the work was in California. Very few things were in Kentucky except for Jacob Cohen who is a barrel artist in downtown. I think he was off market street. He was a big inspiration when I started.
I started making a lot smaller pieces and by word of mouth people saw my work on Facebook and were asking for more.
Greg: This was just a hobby at the time, right?
John: This was just a hobby. At the time when I was starting to get a little bit busier, I figured I had to create a name for it so I can make a Facebook page and potentially make a business out of it. I came up with a few names, passed them by my wife at the time, who’s now my ex-wife. We get along great so that doesn’t matter. The one she hated the most was DrunkWood so I knew since she hated it the most that was going to be the one and it kind of stuck.
It’s DrunkWood because I used to use tobacco, and so tobacco barn wood, so I figured the nicotine and then the bourbon staves and everything, they have they oak into them. My favorite part of the job is, as soon as a cut a piece of bourbon stave, I bring it to my nose and it’s like being in a rickhouse down at Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark.
John: I started to get a little popular through word of mouth and just Facebook and at the time I was working for the University of Louisville, in charge of their teacher education program for middle secondary, got a little be fed up with the higher education system and decided to grow my business a little bit more. The day after I closed on my house, like most sane people do, I put my resignation into work…
Greg: Sure, that makes a lot of sense.
John: Actually, I didn’t tell my parents for 3 months that I did that. They assumed I was working for the university. Didn’t post anything on social media. Then it kind of came out that I had left and started doing DrunkWood full time. Through the use of social media and just word of mouth, business has surprisingly exploded. I’m working probably at least six days a week right now, full time, just slinging out as much bourbon stave and barn wood things as I can.
Greg: Let me back up for a second. When you quit your job right after you closed on your house, did you know that you were going to open this business or did you start doing it because you had to, that there were bills to be paid?
John: It was a combination of, I know that DrunkWood could’ve paid the bills for a small amount of time while I was job searching, so I was looking for jobs in the beer and the bourbon industry because I used to run The Guild of Brewers in the state of Kentucky, so I had a lot of connections through the beer industry.
Interviewed a lot, but nothing turned out so I got pigeon-holed into, “Man, I’m going to have to really start turning out some products and start doing something different to make sales.” Thankfully it came on as a flood to where I was making twice as much money than I made at the university. Everyday I’d less and less job search because I was like, “I don’t need the pressure because bills are getting paid.” I’m still looking for that big job, but I’m also not going to take something minimum wage because I’m my own boss and that’s pretty awesome.
Greg: That is pretty awesome.
John: I get to drink coffee and walk my dog every morning and then get to work and do my thing. I don’t have someone breathing down my neck. I don’t have to request vacation days off or anything like that. For example, I just did a two week hiking and beer tour out in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. My girlfriend didn’t think I-
Greg: Should we pause for a second, let listeners get a little tissue and dry their eyes for you from your beer tour.
John: My girlfriend, she actually said to me, “I didn’t think you were going to come home. I figured you’d find a job in beer or work on a mountain and just leave me to this house with an unfinished kitchen and bathroom.
Greg: And a dog.
John: And a dog.
Greg: Let’s talk about the artwork that you do, explain to us the actual material. DrunkWood, I’m guessing, comes from the name of the barrel wood, but you’re using the curved staves, right? They’re actually curved a little bit?
John: Yeah, they’re all curved. The only way to get them straight or flattened out is you’d have to steam them and do all this work like that. Since I do all the work out of my basement, I would have to probably throw them in the dryer, which probably wouldn’t be functional to do. That’s a joke because you couldn’t do that. I use mainly the barrel tops and the barrel staves. I’ve probably gotten asked 1,576,000 times where I get my bourbon barrels.
Greg: Where do you get your bourbon barrels?
John: Lots of places. I get them from different cooperages, different breweries, I do not get them directly from the distilleries because when … Bourbon can only be used once. When they’re done, cooperages or certain brokers will get those barrels, send them out to Scotland, send them to breweries, because aging beer in bourbon barrels is the hot thing and has been for years.
Greg: There’s a great secondary market for those.
John: I used to get some of those as well. I’ve created partnerships with some of these people. When I first started I would get all my staves for free because there were so many extras staves just laying around. As barrels have become more popular, and also people are doing more things with barrel staves, the game’s changed. I’ve found myself now at this time going back to those original people that I got stuff from who we both seen each other grow and we work out deals and have good partnerships, like the guys at Kelvin Cooperage have been nothing but great to me.
Also, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Company, which is out off Crittendon, have just … I do a lot of work for them. They spread my name around so it’s kind of an I scratch your back, you scratch mine, because I’ll send them breweries all the time that want their barrels. It’s really gotten to be a good partnership.
Greg: When you say stave, what part of the barrel is that?
John: A stave is the outside. There’s tons of staves. There’s the thick ones and there’s the thin ones, so when a cooper puts the staves together he has to go thick then thin, thick then thin, and then with about five rings, tighten those barrels together and then put a top on the bottom, and also on the top I guess.
Greg: How do you make art that is relatively flat out of the curved staves?
John: I answer that question a lot. I’m very specific on how I do things and I’m really upfront and tell people when I do a standard Kentucky, an outline of the state of Kentucky, which is about thirty to thirty two inches, made out of about five or six staves. I tell people it’s going to be able to hang on the wall but it’s going to retain the curvature of the barrel so it looks like someone just cut a Kentucky out of the side of the barrel.
I can do flat things using barrel tops, like fleur de lis or Kentucky Derby horse heads. With the curvature you have to make it look 3D. On my giant states of Kentucky, if you’ve been to Feast or probably in fifty, sixty homes here in Louisville, I offset those staves so it looks like a 3D image coming at you. It emphasizes the curvature.
Greg: You have a little video, like a time lapse video of you installing one of these Kentucky outlines … It’s not an outline, I guess it’s the state, up on a wall. Are those pieces curved that you’re putting up or are those small enough individual that they’re … They look like you were screwing them into a wall.
John: Yeah, they were all curved. Every stave is either … It’s going to be curved long ways and then it’s also curved up and down, so it’s almost like if you flipped a stave over, it’s almost like a bowl no matter what. That video was actually shot this morning. I just did it this morning.
Greg: Was it really?
John: Yeah, down in Cox’s Creek. I got down there and realized I had one piece I was gluing because there was just a tiny piece and I had it on a clamp and I left it at home, so when I got installing I just go, “Oh crap.” I was like, “I’ll be right back down tomorrow morning,” so I have to drive back down there to finish. I think it was Union and Henderson County, something like that, that I forgot. I have to drive back down there. She posted … I didn’t know it, she goes, “Do you mind if I video you doing this?” I was like, “Yeah, sure. Thanks for the pressure.” I didn’t know she was going to do a time lapse. I called her back and thanked her for doing that. It was kind of cool to watch how it was done.
Greg: Are you doing most of your business here in Louisville as opposed to other parts of the state? Are you making stuff and shipping it to other states?
John: I do some shipping like my smaller states of Kentucky or horse heads, things like that. I ship some. Small things I can ship, but those giant things like the big states I can’t because I have to install those piece by piece and I’m really particular on how they go so I don’t want to ship it out to someone, give them instructions, and then it looks like the state of Virginia or something when they’re done. I probably do … around Louisville, I’ve done a couple Lexington and Bardstown and Mount Washington, but probably ninety percent of my work is here in Louisville.
What’s funny is I’ve gotten to explore so many new neighborhoods here in Louisville that I didn’t even know of. I go out to Fisherville all the time, Prospect, just little pockets. I was like, “I didn’t even know this existed.”
Greg: I’m just curious, because I’m obviously in real estate. What kind of clients are these? Are they going in smaller, modest homes or are they going in big mansion homes? Everything in between?
John: I’m going to stereotype and say people with a lot more money than I have. I’ve done-
Greg: You’re an artist, that’s kind of the way it works, right?
John: Yeah, I’m starving. I would say more of the … I use the phrase Wolf Pen Branchers, that’s the type of houses. Large, big family homes, maybe in a suburban type area where maybe some of the homes are similar. Usually they’re built from 95 on, maybe even before that, but generally newer homes. Generally pretty large as well. When I go out to what I call outside the Waterson, those are a lot fancier houses.
Greg: Got you. If someone’s listening, and you said you don’t have a website, you do everything off of Facebook, how do they find you on Facebook?
John: If you just go to Facebook/DrunkWoodinKY, I-N-K-Y, or just simply Google DrunkWood in Kentucky. Don’t click on the image search or anything like that, but I’ll be the first thing that pops up. I do all of my work off Facebook.
Also, if you want to shoot me an email at email@example.com, that’s also another good way to get a hold of me. I have a really quick turn around time. Usually it only takes me a few days to make things depending on how many orders I have. Right now I’ve got twenty five orders in the loop. I knocked out twelve yesterday. It’s pretty good. I haven’t gotten tired yet. My forearms get … Because I do everything by hand, I’m old school. I have no lasers, no fancy cutters, I freehand everything, don’t have any templates. I explain that to people up front. The nice thing is, is I screw anything up, let’s say I forget something or it’s not perfectly straight, I just say, “Hey, the company’s called DrunkWood. If it was perfect it’d be called PerfectWood, but that’s not going to happen.”
Greg: When you’re doing the states that you put up on the walls, that’s freehand drawn?
John: Yeah, it’s all freehand. What’s funny is when I was young in high school, really big into art. I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. When I went to college I got away from it. DrunkWood has allowed me to get that artistic talent back and the creativity of doing new things. I’m pretty humble, I really don’t like a lot of the work I do. I step back from it and the people will love it and I find all the flaws of what could’ve been better, so generally I keep my mouth shut when I’m doing my work.
John: All right, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for joining Perspectives this week presented by Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty. If you have an idea for a future episode or think you might like to participate, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Please if you like this series, make sure to subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher then leave us a review and share and like on all your favorite social media channels. You can find more episodes like this one, as well as all available homes for sale in the Louisville market, at our website LSIR.com.