Growing old gracefully

Growing old gracefully

Coopering is an essential part of the maturation process. Gavin D Smith hails an irreplaceable art.

Production | 16 Sep 2000 | Issue 11 | By Gavin Smith

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It was the diminutive Scottish comedian Ronnie Corbett who once said, “The common belief that whisky improves with age is true. The older I get, the more I like it”.The process of personal maturation must, however, be matched by maturation of the whisky itself if the drink is to be worth getting old for.
In Scots on Scotch, Russell Sharp notes that “... the most economic and convenient way of ensuring that whisky matures to perfection will be the simple one which our forebears discovered. You make a good malt spirit, you fill it into a good oak cask, and you wait for 10 or 20 years”. Of the many variables that influence the character and quality of Scotch whisky, it can be strongly argued that none is more important than Russell Sharp’s ‘good oak cask’. The makers of Glenmorangie reckon that up to 70 per cent of whisky’s characteristics derive from the wood. Detailed analysis of the complex interaction between spirit and wood have been well documented elsewhere, but, essentially, during maturation the spirit gains both colour and flavour from the wood, while higher alcohols are transformed into esters and other compounds with desirable aromas.The rate at which maturation occurs depends on a number of factors, including the style of malt whisky concerned, its strength, the size of cask, and the temperature and humidity at which storage takes place. Most casks used for Scotch whisky have previously contained either
bourbon or sherry, and the former contents will have a significant influence on the whisky during maturation. So too will the number of previous fillings of whisky that the cask has notched up, as the beneficial effects of the wood diminish with use. As many as 17 million casks are in circulation in the Scotch whisky industry at the present time, so the role of the cooper – the man who builds,
re-builds, rejuvenates and repairs them – clearly remains vitally important.The National Cooperage Federation currently has 36 members, five of whom are based in England and 31 in Scotland. The Federation calculates that, in December 1999, 305 coopers and 31 apprentices were employed in Britain, less than half the figure for 1982. During the early 1960s the Glasgow area alone employed more than 1,000 coopers.The Glasgow district of Maryhill is home to Scotland’s oldest independent cooperage, James Guthrie & Son’s Ibrox Cooperage, a company founded in 1876, and now owned by one of the trade’s great characters, Tommy Rodger.According to Tommy, “We currently have eight staff, but a decade ago when things were really busy we had about 60, and at that time we were handling around 80,000 casks a year. The whisky industry has nose-dived in the past few years due to over-production, with filling of casks exceeding emptyings. But then it always seems to go in cycles of about 10 years.”The Ibrox Cooperage has survived various changes of address after 110 years on its original site, and the current premises stand in 9 less than tidy acres, close to a large housing scheme and numerous other small business units of varying vintages. Opposite the cooperage is the local drop-in centre for the unemployed. It seems a long way from the idyllically-situated distilleries of the Highlands and Islands which are Tommy Rodger’s principal customers.Once in the workshop, however, the outside world is forgotten. The sweet smell of whisky-sodden wood from casks in various states of distress and rehabilitation fills the nostrils, and the sound of persistent hammering vies with Radio Clyde.Tommy Rodger is a fast-talking, bagpipe-playing Glaswegian, with a fund of funny and wise stories about coopering and the whisky industry gleaned from almost half a century’s personal experience.He gleefully recounts the day back in the late 1970s when the River Clyde flooded, and thousands of casks from what was then the Long John International complex on London Road were washed out of the premises and down river, ending up next to his cooperage site. The salvage firm employed by Long John obligingly stacked several thousand of the rescued casks in the conveniently-situated yard of James Guthrie & Sons.The business has other perks, too. At the end of my visit to Maryhill, Tommy presented me with a large glass of beautifully-matured, un-woody, 37-year-old Macallan. He had discovered two gallons of the stuff left behind in the bottom of a cask after bottling had taken place!“I wanted to be a cooper even when I thought a cooperage was something to do with hens,” says Tommy, whose elder brother was a cooperage manager. “I started in the business when I was just 14, and was a foreman by the time I was 18. I worked in various cooperages over the years, ending up as manager for Guthrie & Sons, and then I took over the firm in 1976. I’ve been in the business for 45 years, and I’m proud of my work, and still enjoy it. I don’t know any cooper who isn’t proud of
his trade.” He says that increased mechanisation in cooperages means that today’s coopers don’t need as much skill as they did in days gone by when everything was done by hand, although the four-year apprenticeship remains just as rigorous. As we walk through the workshop, Tommy points out hydraulic hoop-drivers, head-rounders, and de-charring machines which strip the inside of the barrels down to the fresh wood.The process of thermal degradation, or charring, is beneficial to maturing spirit because the active carbon in the charred timber helps to remove unwanted compounds from the spirit, and also induces lignin decomposition which speeds up the release of aromatic aldehydes into it. All bourbon casks are compulsorily charred before use. Tommy says that de- and re- charring has only been a feature of the industry for the past dozen years or so. “After maybe three fillings the wood becomes saturated, and loses its ability to mature whisky. Chemists discovered that if the insides of the casks were skimmed and then re-fired they were getting the same effect as with a new cask. You could probably get another three fillings out of it.”Some 90 per cent of casks used in the Scotch whisky industry formerly held bourbon, and much of the Ibrox Cooperage’s work consists off repairing imported ex-American barrels or dismantling them to re-build as hogsheads. Ex-bourbon barrels have a capacity of around 200 litres, while the popular hogshead – or ‘hoggie’ – holds some 250 litres, so 5 bourbon barrels convert into 4 re-built hogsheads.According to Tommy Rodger, “Virtually all of the ex-bourbon wood comes in as standing or complete barrels these days, whereas until the late 1980s, it was all broken down into ‘shooks’ before being imported. One result is that less coopering work is required.”In the cooperage yard he showed me a recent delivery of casks, ready for assessment and, where necessary, repair. “These are one-fill ex-bourbon casks”, he notes, “they’ve had one previous filling of Scotch whisky, and they’re at a premium.”It has become quite common in recent years for some distillers to transfer malts from their original casks into slightly less orthodox ones for a short period in order to finish the whisky, thereby giving the same single malt a diversity of characteristics. Tommy Rodger is inclined to dismiss the current trend for finishing as something of a gimmick. He recalls trying to de-char an ex-Chardonnay cask for a distiller, and discovering that the wine had created a layer in the cask which he describes as being “like ceramic”. He had to fire it very heavily to remove the coating, which effectively left the equivalent of a new oak cask. Without de-charring, he reckons, no maturation of new spirit could have occurred, as it couldn’t possibly have permeated the coating to get to the wood! “Anyone filling spirit into that and going back after three years expecting it to have matured would have been disappointed!”Tommy’s reservations about finishing are shared by Douglas Taylor, of Scotland’s highest-profile cooperage, the Speyside, at Craigellachie.
“Maybe it was The Macallan’s use of nothing but sherry wood that got Glenmorangie interested in experimenting with different wood finishes, and certainly lots of people have been trying it since. I do think it’s maybe become a bit of a gimmick for some, and it can be confusing for the whisky-buying public. It’s fine from our point of view, however, as we’ve been doing work sourcing Madeira and port casks for some distillers, so we’re not complaining!”The Speyside Cooperage is located just four miles from the Scotch whisky capital of Dufftown. The tranquil, rural setting, below the bulk of Ben Rinnes, is in stark contrast with the Ibrox Cooperage, and from a distance the cooperage looks like a collection of modern farm buildings. Then the mountain of empty casks behind the premises comes into sight, and you realise it isn’t a farm. Even on Speyside you can’t cultivate
whisky casks.Some 25,000 members of the public visit the Speyside Cooperage each year, watching the team of 27 time-served coopers and apprentices at work and experiencing the excellent Acorn to Cask exhibition. The exhibition and accompanying audio-visual presentation explore the 5,000-year-old heritage of coopering. The visitor learns that American or Spanish oak is the optimum timber for whisky maturation because of its flexibility and toughness, as well as the fact that desirable compounds are extracted from it by the spirit during maturation. Of the 50-odd species of oak growing around the world, only a handful are suitable for whisky cask construction, with the best being Quercus alba, the American White Oak. American forests now provide in excess of 90 per cent of the wood used in Scottish cooperages, and each spring, Douglas Taylor travels to the US to select timber for cask-making. Many of the tools and processes used by today’s cooper are very similar to those employed in the past, though as at the Ibrox, there have been labour-saving innovations at the Speyside Cooperage. Microwave techniques are used to heat and shape the barrel staves, and radio frequencies modify the natural chemistry of the oak far quicker and more consistently than conventional steaming and charring.The Speyside Cooperage has been owned by the Taylor family since 1947, with the business beginning in very basic premises. Douglas recalls that “we started with just six coopers, and we now have a staff of around 80. We were always short of room to expand, so when we got the chance we bought the present site, which had been a farm, in 1989.” The Taylors invested £1.3m in creating the present purpose-built cooperage, which opened three years later.This is very much a family business, with Willie and Douglas Taylor acting as joint managing directors, while their mother is in the chair. Douglas’s daughter Joanne works in the office, and Willie’s youngest daughter Alison is employed in the cooperage shop.The cooperage does a thriving line in gift items made from redundant casks, ranging from pen-holders to garden furniture. Even the shavings from redundant casks have a final lease of life, imparting a whisky flavour to food in Scottish smokehouses.Not content with the volume of work at Craigellachie, the Taylors also have a second cooperage in Broxburn, near Edinburgh, presided over by Willie Taylor, who points out “we make 80,000 or so casks at Broxburn each year, and 70 or 80 per cent of that business is for grain distilleries such as Port Dundas.” Douglas estimates that during 1998/9 the Speyside and its sister Broxburn cooperage handled around 180,000 casks. Only a small proportion of the work at the Speyside consists of constructing casks from scratch, and those which are made are mostly destined not for the whisky industry, but for Marston’s brewery in Burton-on-Trent.It was probably a 17th century illicit whisky maker who inadvertently discovered the seemingly magical effects of maturation on whisky, having forgotten where he had hidden a cask and then rediscovered it some years later. Whoever he was, we owe him a great debt of gratitude. nThe Speyside Cooperage: Craigellachie, Scotland.
Tel +44 (0)1340 871108.
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