As we all know, the Scotch whisky industry is ramping up production to meet increasing demand around the world, reopening silent distilleries, adding capacity to existing plants, and building entirely new distilleries.
As more spirit is produced, so more casks are required in which to mature it, leading to a greater focus on the work of Scotland's cooperages. In 2011 Diageo unveiled its £10 million state-of-the-art Cambus Cooperage in Central Scotland; and last year Speyside Cooperage opened a new, purpose-built unit just a stone's throw from the Diageo facility, replacing its previous plant at Broxburn, near Edinburgh.
The 'original' Speyside Cooperage at Craigellachie, near Aberlour, is a popular visitor attraction on the Malt Whisky Trail, with the business being established by the father and grandfather of Willie and Douglas Taylor back in 1947. However, from 1996, while Douglas ran the Speyside operation, Willie headed up a lower profile arm of the business at Broxburn. "Our Craigellachie site allowed us to secure business from the bulk of the malt distilleries," explains Willie Taylor, "but because of its location, it excluded us for the main part from working with grain distilleries.
Even 17 years ago centralisation was taking place in the Scotch whisky industry, with lots of tankerisation, and the focus for maturation moving south to the Central Belt. There was still plenty of business in the north, but we felt we couldn't grow the company without getting a base in the south, as well."
Accordingly, a site was sought in the south of Scotland, at a time when United Distillers had recently sold its former Bell's bottling and warehousing complex at Broxburn to Glenmorangie plc, for whom the accompanying cooperage was surplus to requirements. "There was an existing cooperage and the makings of a workforce," notes Willie Taylor, "but we always thought of Broxburn as a temporary base for us really. We rented Broxburn, we didn't own it and we wanted total control." So it was that when the wheel turned full circle and United Distillers' successor Diageo plc bought the Broxburn site from Glenmorangie, the Taylors began to look for new premises.
They settled on the Dumyat Business Park, four miles from Stirling and at the very heart of Diageo's filling and warehousing operations, located between the Cambus and Blackgrange complexes, with the latter being the largest warehouse complex in Europe, holding some three million casks.
"Diageo has been our largest customer since my father's day, so it seemed sensible to move close to their main filling sites if we were moving anyway," says Willie Taylor. "Also, it's a very central site anyway, with good motorway links nearby, and our business with Diageo has increased since the move."
In March of this year the new Speyside Cooperage (Alloa) opened for business, and Taylor notes that "The main changes here are an extra 25 per cent of capacity and automated de-char and re-char equipment." The process of removing a layer from the inner surface of a wellused cask and re-firing it to reinvigorate its maturation potential is now proving more popular than ever.
"We are very busy with de-char/rechar for many of our customers," says Taylor, "as everyone is trying to get as much use as they can out of casks at the moment due to the increases in production. For the same reason, we are now getting more broken casks to repair, and real skill is required by our coopers to get them back into shape. We are being used a lot now for getting older casks back into production. 1,200 casks per week on average are passing through the cooperage, and we handle barrels, hogsheads, butts and puncheons."
The cooperage does business with most of the companies currently active in the Scotch whisky industry, and Willie Taylor insists that "They have all undoubtedly improved their wood stocks in recent years. When they ask us to source casks for them, the emphasis now is always on quality.
"We set out with the new cooperage to position ourselves to service our customers' needs in terms of the level of equipment," he adds. Hence the presence not only of the latest in de-cha/re-char technology, but also a series of automated steaming chambers to introduce much-needed moisture back into processed casks, along with the now customary mechanical hoop drivers.
"Lots of the old, hard manual work has been automated," according to Taylor "allowing the coopers to concentrate on using their real skills." These skills are not learnt overnight, and he notes that "It takes a four year apprenticeship to become a cooper, there's no pool of coopers we can tap into. Since moving here we've taken on seven staff - four of whom are apprentice coopers and three general workers. We have 16 timeserved coopers, and a total of 6/7 apprentices in various stages training."
Although Willie Taylor runs the new cooperage, since 2008 the Speyside Cooperage business has been owned by French family firm François Frères Tonnellerie, based at St Romain, in the Burgundy region. "One of the advantages of being part of a global company is that we can tap into their knowledge and contacts to help us source casks for the Scotch whisky industry," says Taylor.
He also points out that "Two and a half years ago we opened a new Speyside Cooperage in Kentucky, located at Shepherdsville, close to Louisville Airport. This has given us a presence in an area where most available casks for Scotch whisky are to be found." Given the rate of increasing spirit production, Willie Taylor's coopers seem certain to be kept busy for a long time to come.