Adventures in wood

Adventures in wood

Ian Buxton looks at some innovative uses for casks and washbacks when the whisky industry has finished with them.

Production | 17 Apr 2008 | Issue 71 | By Ian Buxton

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The distilling industry likes to promote its environmental credentials and lays heavy emphasis on the use of waste materials, such as draff and pot ale. But distilleries use a lot of wood, in casks and in wash backs. What happens to this when its working life is done?Well, the classic example is that old casks are taken off to be used as planters or, more imaginatively, made into garden furniture.You can see a typical selection at the Speyside Cooperage, handily located between Craigellachie and Glenfiddich distilleries, where it has also built giant picnic huts for visitors to shelter from the rain. Another typical garden furniture producer is Kilgraney Railway Sleepers (guess what it used before it discovered old barrels) of Cotgrave near Nottingham ( garden centres carry a few old barrels for use as planters – but we want to be more imaginative. Traditionally, relatively coarse outdoor furniture has been made out of old casks, but two firms are making finer pieces that can be used indoors as well.David Geary-Aston has many years experience in producing articles from reclaimed materials. Now he has turned that expertise into a business, Oak Barrel Furniture (, which specialises in reclaiming spent casks and creating attractive chairs, tables, wine racks and even a food smoker. The website features a DIY guide to constructing your own patio chair and table.The idea of a wooden smoker intrigued me, so I questioned David for more details.“The latest use I’m making of old whisky barrels is a cold and hot food smoker,” he told me. “The prototype has worked better than expected and in fact today I’ve just finished my first batch of smoked Scottish Salmon. Did some kippers a couple of weeks ago and they were tremendous – even my daughter, who doesn’t particularly like fish, ate two!” In a similar vein, David Trujillo-Farley’s Postartefact project ( takes a more philosophical view and stresses the environmental and ethical benefits of recycling in what he terms the ‘sustainable design ecology’. The Postartefact products are particularly light and elegant, belying their more robust original form.David’s Bowmore Chair won the 2006 Eco Prize for Creativity from the EcoTrust. The chair was designed and made to explore the possibility of creating a sustainable industry on Islay from a native industrial waste material.In the words of the judges: “It engaged a sustainable design ethos, using the high quality waste material of spent whisky barrels and minimal energy, to create an aesthetically pleasing mainstream product which would eventually be completely biodegradable.” But, as whisky drinkers, we might be looking for something more closely related to the source of the wood. A bar, perhaps, made entirely from an old washback?Such a feature appears in the Garden Bar at Linn House, Chivas Brothers’ VIP brand home in Keith. Sadly, this is open by invitation only but, if you are fortunate enough to be step inside, you will see an interior constructed from washbacks recovered from Longmorn distillery.As Chivas’ Jim Long explains: “When Seagram renewed the washbacks at Longmorn they did so with stainless steel vessels, but the wood was carefully put to one side and has been used for various projects. Some is in our trade visitor area at Glenburgie, illustrating the fermentation process, but the Garden Bar is the most creative use so far.” A bar may seem an ambitious project but, as I discovered, it’s actually quite modest.For the ultimate in recycled distillery wood, you have to build a house and then live in it. Obviously.The Findhorn Community can trace its roots back to 1962. At first regarded with suspicion for its then unconventional spiritual vision it has today grown into a world-famous eco-village, which is seen as a model of sustainable development and an education centre for teaching and learning about the application of spiritual principles in everyday life.There are some 90 ‘ecological’ buildings on the site, including five houses constructed from former washback timbers or old marrying vats. The Foundation’s whisky barrel house ‘pioneer’ is long-time Findhorn resident Dr Roger Doudna, International Programme Officer for the Restore the Earth project, who still lives in the ‘whisky house’ he created in 1986.The first house took around a year to build, using old marrying vessels from the Haig & Haig blending plant at Markinch in Fife, and Roger has subsequently developed a group of houses he refers to as the ‘Water of Life cluster.’ Three are single person homes, and two house families.There is also a summer-house made from a former washback.“It’s a wonderful space to live in,” says Roger. “Before you ask, the odour of whisky has long since disappeared – though,” he adds somewhat wistfully, “it is deeply embedded in the wood and I do catch a slight whisky aroma if a piece breaks off or I have to drive a nail into the structure.” The whisky houses have proved lowmaintenance dwellings, requiring only a coat of oil-based stain every three to five years to prevent ulta-violet degradation. They are relatively energy efficient, requiring just a little additional insulation to provide a comfortable year-round environment.Heating is by electricity (generated by the Community’s own wind turbines), propane gas or, fittingly, from a wood stove.Other barrel dwellers include 76 year old former teacher Auriol de Smidt and Craig Gibson, an artist, potter and eco-village trainer.He too started building his house around 1986 and, like a miniature Gaudi building, it has been constantly evolving. The core is two barrels held together in an octagonal structure, housing a complex of rooms and passages that may never be ‘finished.’ There’s a serious point here: the barrel house dwellers are not just a bunch of unreconstructed hippies; they may, in fact, be showing us the future. We won’t all live in whisky houses, but the ‘eco-housing’ at Findhorn has been shown to perform outstandingly well. An independent study by the Sustainable Development Research Centre looked at the ecological footprint per person of the United Kingdom as a whole, Scotland and the Beddington Zero Energy Development (Bed Zed), a recent sustainable community development with many examples of best practice. Findhorn significantly improved on the UK and Scottish average and the report concluded that: “The resident ecological footprint for the Findhorn Foundation and Community is lower than the Bed Zed ecological footprint, and the weighted average results in an even lower ecological footprint. This suggests that the Findhorn Foundation and Community’s practices have less impact upon the environment.” So that’s a myriad of things to do with old wood, some fun and some very responsible.
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