Ger Buckley, master cooper at Midleton Distillery, celebrated 40 years as a cooper in November 2016. You could say coopering is ingrained in his family: his father was a cooper, all his father's brothers were coopers, as was his father's father and grandfather.
Coopering oak wood is a highly skilled craft, and coopers use a variety of tools when they raise a cask. Ger's favourite is his croze, the implement used to cut a groove around the top of the cask. Without this tool, you cannot make a barrel. The inside and outside of the cask must be plain level so that when you put in a cask head, it exerts equal pressure on every stave otherwise leaks can occur. Ger explains how he uses it, "When you're cutting with the croze, you have two cutters, called hawks, which cut top and bottom, then behind them, you've got a lance, that ploughs out the groove. You pull it all the way along the chime area with the first motion, cutting with the hawks, and then go back and engage the lance to plough out that new line. The end result is a perfectly cut line." After that, a good fitting cask head is selected, and a rush or reed from a riverbank is added as a natural seal, a practice that may have originated in boat building going back to Egyptian times.
Ger uses the same croze that once belonged to his father, the wooden tool dark and shiny, and the surfaces worn smooth by heavy usage. It was originally made in London, probably in the 1930s, and Ger estimates that it has been in use for 80 years at least. Whenever it's time for maintenance, the croze can come apart to sharpen the three cutters. "Nothing cuts as smoothly as this one," he says, "I've got so used to using it over 40 years that I can't use a different one."
Some coopers make their own tools, for example, Ger possesses a cooper's timber compass from the turn of the 19th Century that belonged to his grandfather's brother, a ship's cooper on tall ships in the British Navy. This man had a firkin compass that was varnished because he had to put his tools out for inspection, so they were always kept in pristine order, and Ger still makes use of it when necessary.
Ger's father worked as a cooper for 40 years too, first working at Watercourse Distillery, Cork with his grandfather's brother. "I started in 1976 and I served my apprenticeship to my dad, which is kind of unique, even in coopering terms," reflects Ger. "I had so much respect for him as a craft person, and I still try to match his skill level today. I probably do, I'm being hard on myself, but I think he was an amazing craft person who knew all the old coopering ways of making casks. He could trim a pencil with an axe, he was that accurate."
Last summer, Jameson launched a tasty trio of whiskeys called the Jameson The Whiskey Makers series. Purposely, Ger's bottling named The Cooper's Croze contains the oldest whiskeys of the three in order to demonstrate the influence of oak cask maturation. "I know a lot of coopers who would be proud to see the name 'cooper' on a bottle of whiskey," he says respectfully. I'm certain it would make his father proud, "He trained five or six apprentices in his time, and that's probably the greatest complement you can get as a cooper, when people ask you to train their sons. I learned my craft from my father, and had to do exactly what he said. He was the boss, though he wasn't strict. He was great to work with, you know?"
Things were not so great for Irish whiskey in the early 80s. The cooperages in Dublin closed in 1982, leaving a lot of coopers redundant, including Ger's father. There are only two coopers working at Midleton these days, although Ger is training a third year apprentice who will continue with the traditions, so that these crafts will be kept alive. The apprentice might get to use the master cooper's croze one day, though even after 40 years of service, Ger's not finished with it yet.
The Kit is a new, regular feature where we look in-depth at a piece of equipment used in the production of whisky. Drop me a line at email@example.com or tweet us @Whisky_Magazine to suggest the next item.