The Shears of Beltsville are very serious about their business. They want to put a whiskey barrel in every house in America.
The Shears, Irv and his 23-year-old son Dave, are owners and operators of Barrels Limited of Beltsville. From a modest warehouse in the Paulen Industrial Center off Route 1, the Barrel Barons of Beltsville sold nearly 100,000 half and full-sized barrels last year to customers from New York to Florida and as far West as the Mississippi. And that's only the beginning, says Irv Shear.
"The market just won't be saturated," he says, "It's constant growth. We've already met last year's figures."
Irv Shear is a professional scavenger. He takes the by-products from one business and turns them into marketable items in themselves.
"There are five major whisky distillers in the country and we buy from all of them," he says. What he buys are used, 55 gallon, solid white oak whisky barrels - thousands of them, which he "processes" and sells to supermarkets, hardware stores, lumber yards and nurseries. People buy them and turn them into everything from planters to dog houses.
To process a barrel means to empty the residue sypirits from it, re'build it and cut it in half. The cutting used to be done entirely by hand, a cumbersome and inefficient method. So the Shears designed a special power saw, that could do the job in a fraction of the time it used to take.
"That mechanism is the key to the whole thing," says Dave Shear. It cost them $2,000 to design and build. Even though the device has a patent pending. Irv guards it like a military secret . . . no photographs and no detailed descriptions.
By law, whisky barrels may not be re-used to age bourbon in the United States. Many are shipped to distilleries in Canada and Europe where there are no such restrictions. But a lot of barrels still go to waste. Irv saw this wastefulness first hand when he worked as a sales representative for the Majestic Distilling Co., in Baltimore.
He began to bring some of the barrels home, where his oldest son Neal, now with Citicorp in New York, got the idea of bisecting and selling them. He evenr came up with a name for the venture - The Great American After Product Reclamation Co. That was in 1972.
After the cutting process was finally perfected, the operation moved into a rented garage in Chevy Chase where they cut barrels day an night. However, their industriousness, and noisiness, didn't go over very well with their neighbors and they were forced to move.
They relocated in Rockville. "Everything was fine," Irv recalls, "until we discovered that the tenant below us was a precision instrument maker and everytime we dropped a barrel it threw his instruments off."
Beltsville has been their home for the past eight months. "We turn them over very fast," says Irv, "we need more room, but we're not moving again."
Soon Neal left for Cornell and Irv and Dave stepped in. Irv became president of the company when it was incorporated last year. Barrels Ltd. still is basically a family business, with Irv's wife keeping the books and Neal calling occasionally with advice.
Most of the barrels that come into Irv's warehouse are four to six years old and they look it. In fact the older and more weather-beaten the barrels are, the better, because of the "craze for rustic looking things."
Most whisky is aged out of doors or in old warehouses where the rain and sun can get in and expand and contract the oak staves, allowing the whisky to breath through them.
Barrels that have been protected from the elecments are called "bright." They are exceptionally clean and new looking and Irv sells them to furniture makers who transform them into sofas, tables, bar stools and shelves.
Four workers re-cooper, cut and deliver 700 to 1,000 barrels a day. Re-coopering simply means putting an aging barrel back together. "We watched and learned from all the coopers at local distilleries," Irv explains.
Dave selects a barrel from among the hundreds in the warehouse and rolls it across the floor, through puddles of bourbon. The wooden plug is knocked out of the bung hole. With a hammer and chisel, he positions and tightens the rusted hoops. Then he grabs an air-powered nailer and fires two nails into each hoop. If the hoops are loose, Dave will hose down the barrel to get the wood expand. The cutting takes only 30 seconds and then the two halves are staked to await delivery.
Irv sits in his cluttered, cinderblock office, a stocky, barrel chested man who sports a battered GI hat. The credo hanging above his desk reads "From Barrels Limited - Unlimited Ideas." From this bunker he commands his army of barrels.
Dave walks in. "We've got 255 out there now. We're not in too bad shape," he says. "We need 377," says his father. The orders come in all morning long. Fifty halves for Giant, 200 halves and 200 fulls of Acme, another 50 halves.
According to Irv the barrels are a hot item these days. Safeway has doubled its sales every month since March, the beginning of the planting season, when what Irv called the "yard people" are out. Places like Hechinger's do well with them particularly because of the opportunity for "companion sales" like potting soil, sandpaper, varnish and other items. "It's a good merchandising incentive," says Irv. He has even put together a booklet of nine projects for the barrel enthusiast, including a table, a terrarium and a cradle.
The stores sell the half barrels for $5 to $7 and Irv makes a profit of $1 or 2 depending on the distiller he bought them from.
"We feel very lucky right now," says Irv."We're always looking for something different and original to sell in the market place."
Now Barrels Ltd, is expanding into other areas. Retailers can buy smaller oak barrels (15, 10 and 15 gallons), plastic milk containers (which can be stacked to make a poor man's bookcase), spigots, nail kegs, steel drums, obsolete nautical charts and Irv's latest discovery, wooden chicken coops. The coops, which will be on the market in September, are being hand made exclusively for Barrel Ltd. by a man who will turn out 3,000 of them a month.