John Gill’s inventory is impressive — Heaven Hill rye, Maker’s Mark bourbon, cabernet, chardonnay, apple brandy, Cognac. No, Gill doesn’t run a liquor store. His inventory consists of empty barrels that at one time were the homes of spirits and wines. He gives them a second life as The Barrel Broker, the business he runs out of a warehouse in Menomonee Falls (N93 W14580 Whittaker Way).
Local breweries have significantly upped their production of barrel-aged beers in the last couple of years. Barrel aging requires a base beer and, well, plenty of barrels provided by Gill. He supplies the overwhelming majority of the oaken vessels used locally.
“In the greater Milwaukee area I’d say between 90 and 95 percent of craft breweries that barrel-age, we’ve sold them barrels, racks or both,” said Gill. “It’s probably about the same statewide as well. There are very few Milwaukee breweries that haven’t done business with us. We’ve been here six and a half years. We’re a local source, so there’s no shipping involved.”
Necessity Breeds Opportunity
Gill got his business started shortly after the Great Recession. He was a wine tour operator in northern California and during the economic downturn business suffered. In 2009, he began buying wine barrels from the Robert Mondavi winery, cutting them in half and selling them as planters on Craigslist.
In 2012, Gill’s wife Kathleen was relocated to the Milwaukee area for work and The Barrel Broker set up shop in Wisconsin. The timing was excellent considering that the Wisconsin brewing scene was robust, and the Milwaukee scene just a few years away from exploding.
“When I moved here I really got into the spirit barrels, because a lot of them are coming out of Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana,” explained Gill. “It was a natural fit, plus that’s what breweries need.”
Perhaps no one benefits more from Gill’s wide selection than brewer Kyle Vetter at 1840 Brewing Company (342 E. Ward St.). In the last 18 months, Vetter has released 25 barrel-fermented or barrel-aged beers. He’s purchased chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, tequila and bourbon barrels from Gill for use at 1840.
“We’re lucky to have John right in our backyard,” said Vetter. “When you buy as many barrels as we do, shipping charges can add up. With John being a 20-minute drive away we don’t have the freight costs and we have the flexibility of picking them up the day we need them. He always has a great stock of the barrels we use the most like neutral red wine, neutral white wine and bourbon. He also has a rotating selection of unique barrels like tequila, brandy, whiskey, bourbon maple syrup, etc. If we need anything specific I just shoot him a text and he lets me know if and when he can get them.”
Matt Hofmann, brewmaster at St. Francis Brewery (3825 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), is also a Barrel Broker fan. Hoffman’s TEOTWAWKI, a brown ale that won a silver medal at the 2018 Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers, cultivated its rich flavor in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels provided by Gill.
“I generally can find what I’m looking for in his inventory since he’s always got a big and varied selection in stock,” said Hofmann. “It’s awesome to work with a local purveyor. I can generally get the barrels with little or no notice. I get to see and smell the barrels before I take them. I don’t have to pay shipping and I get to support a small, independent local business. I don’t see any downside.”
The Barrel Broker has shipped product to all 50 states, Mexico and even overseas. Gill estimates that he moves 500 or more barrels each month. Most of the oak barrels sold by Gill are 53 or 59 gallons, and prices range from around $90 to nearly $300, depending upon the type of barrel. The barrels are shipped to his Menomonee Falls warehouse on commercial trucks before being picked up or shipped to customers.
“Basically our loading dock gives us access to the world,” added Gill.