Production

Staringdownabarrel

IanWisniewskilooksattheroleofthecooperandassesseswhatfuturetheprofessionhas
By Ian Wisniewski
Oakmanagementhasbecomeamantraintheindustry,reflectingthefactthatbetween40-70percentofamalt’sflavourisderivedfromthecask.Butthepeoplewhohelptoensurethatcasksgiveoftheirbest,thecoopers,rarelygetamention.Theprofessiondividesupintoproduction,bondandservicecoopers.Generallybasedatdistilleriesandcommercialcooperages,productioncoopersare‘all-rounders,’providingacomprehensiverangeofservicessuchasrepairingandrejuvenatingcasks,reassemblingstaves,enlargingbarrelsintohogsheads,andfittingnewbarrelheadsandends.Bondcoopersaretypicallybasedatbondedwarehouses,checkingforleaksandcoveringbasicrepairsoncasks(notnecessarilyemptyatthetime).Servicecoopershavesimilarresponsibilities,basedatbondedwarehousesorcooperages,whilealsoundertakingrepairssuchasfittingnew
barrelheadsandends.AccordingtoTheNationalCooperageFederation,thenumberofcoopersandapprenticeshasdeclinedfromapeakof623coopersin1990(admittedlyanunusuallystrongyear)to229coopersin2003.Thislatesttotaldividesinto45servicecoopers,15bondcoopers,17foremenand145productioncoopers(with62productioncoopersemployedbycommercialcooperages).Akeyfactoristhatoverthepastfouryearsthelevelofdumpings(ie.whiskyemptiedfromcasks)hasexceededproduction,whilenewfillingscontinuetousecasksalreadyinthesystem.Meanwhile,increasedmechanisationhasenabledfewermentodofarmore.Driving(puttingon)andremovingcaskhoopswasalwaysconsideredthemostdemandingjob,hardlysurprisingwhenwieldinga5lbhammeranddriver(woodenimplementwithagroovedsteelhead).Theintroductionofmechanicalhoopdriversoverthepast25to30yearshaschangedthedailyratefromcompletingaround10casksto30-35casks.Similarly,remakingfivehogsheadswasconsideredagoodday’swork40-50yearsago,buttodaymachineryacurrentdailytotalofaround30hogsheads.Havingagooddayisvital,asproductioncoopersworkonaPBR(paymentbyresults)scheme,whereasbondandservicecoopersreceiveregularsalaries.ReformingthePBRsystemisbeingdiscussed,buttherearevariousfactorstoconsider.“Theproblemforcommercialcooperagesisthatwedon’tknowfromoneweektothenexthowmuchwe’llrepair,sowe’rethinkingwhatsortofwageschemewecanintroducesothatthemendon’tgetlessmoney,andsothatwedon’thavetoaddoncoststocustomers,”saysWillieTaylor,proprietorofBroxburnCooperage,andpresidentofTheNationalCooperageFederation.TheroleofTheNationalCooperageFederationhasrecentlyevolvedfromessentiallyawagenegotiatingbody,tobeingmoreinvolvedwithapprenticesandHealth&Safetyissues.Thishasresultedinguidelinesonvariousissuessuchasvibrationwhitefinger,essentiallyacirculationproblemwithfingertipsbecominglesssensitiveornumb(thoughnottothepointofpreventingphysicalwork).Vibrationinthearms,fromrepeatedlydrivinghoopswitha5lbmallet,explainshowthiscandevelop.“We’renotsurewhetherit’samajorproblem,thoughitdoesexist,withafewcasesinthepast10years.We’vebeenmonitoringourguysforthepastsixorsevenyears,”saysWillieTaylor,addingthatannualmedicalchecksforvibrationwhitefingerisnowstandardpractise.Inwhatisaveryphysicalandnoisyworkingenvironment,otherHealth&Safetyissueshavebeencovered,withsafetyboots,eyeandearprotectorspartofacooper’skit,whiledustextractorsavoidpotentialrespiratoryproblemsfromhardwooddust.Meanwhile,althoughincreasedmechanisationhascreatedsaferandlesspunishingconditions,thiscanironicallyalsoaffectjobsecurity.Onlyafewdistilleriesnowhavein-houseproductioncoopers.LochLomondhasfourandanapprentice,whileInvergordonhasthree,togetherwithoneservicecooperandaseniorforeman.WilliamGrant’steamofsixincludesDonRamsay,whojoinedstraightfromschoolattheageof15in1961,andisstillgoingstrong43yearslater.Bruichladdichrecentlyopenedacooperage,withmastercooperJohnRenniedefinedasaproduction/warehousecooper.Thisinvolvesrejuvenatingandrepairingcasks,combinedwithmaintenanceandcaskstorage.Hisroleisalsooneofmentor,trainingPeterMacTaggart,a21yearoldwhobeganhisapprenticeshipthisMay.Completingthefouryearapprenticeshipismarkedbya‘trussingin,’or‘finishingout’ritual.Traditionallythisinvolvedbeingblackenedwithtreacle,caramel,woodshavingsandcharcoalfromcharredcasks,beingplacedinsideabutt,withtheheadandendremoved,androlledtothenearestpub.Thecurrentpractiseisabittamer(reflectinghealthandsafetyconcerns)withapprenticesplacedinastationarycaskandhavingtreaclepouredover,followedbyastrolltothepub.Amoreformalelementisbeingpresentedwithindenturepapers(certifyingdocuments)fromTheNationalFederationofCoopers,andsometimesacroze(acooperagetoolusedtocutgroovesinstaveswhenfittingacaskhead).Withinthecommercialsector,IslaCooperageinKeith,acquiredbyRichardProcterin1989,has10productioncoopersandtwoapprentices.Therearealso10productioncoopersatBroxburnCooperage.“FiveyearsagoIhad18coopers.It’sacyclicalindustry,justlikethewhiskyindustry,”saysWillieTaylor.Willie’sbrotherDouglasrunsSpeysideCooperage,thelargestprivately-ownedoperation,with12productioncoopersandthreeapprentices,whichrepresentsathirdofthetotalnumber10yearsago.Thecooperageisafixtureonthemaltwhiskytrail,receivingaround21,000visitorsannually,withthetourincludingessentialretailopportunitiesattheshop.SpeysideandBroxburncooperagearealsodiversifyingtheirrepertoire,sourcingthelikesofmalaga,madeira,claret,marsala,burgundyandtokajicasks.Whileit’sanichemarket,specialfinisheshavebeenadynamicsectorsincethemid-1990s,andmoredistilleriesareexperimentingwith‘designer’casksfortheentirematurationperiod.Anotherpotentialgrowthareaisorganicmalt,withSpeysideCooperagealreadyconstructinginexcessof1,000casksfromcertifiedorganicstaves.Anoptionformultinationalsisoperatinganin-housedivisiontoserviceanextensiveportfolio.AlliedDistillershastwomillioncasksininventorycontainingthefuturequalitiesforBallantine’s,Teacher’sandLaphroaig.ItalsohasthreecoopersbasedatKilmalid,wheremostofthecompany’sdumpingtakesplace,althoughtheyalsovisitwarehousesitesintheLowlands,checkingupto2,000casksdaily.Fully-trained,thesecooperscanundertakevarioustasksataworkshopthatincludesahoopdriver,althoughcasksarealsosenttooutsidecooperagesforrepair.Diageoistheindustry’slargestemployer,with120menincludingproductioncoopersandforemen,handlingaround90,000casksannuallyatfourcooperages,Blythswood,DundashillandLeven,withamechanisedfacilityatCarsebridge.Diageorecentlyannouncedplanstomodernisethecooperingoperations,focusingactivityandprovidingadditionalinvestmenttoincreasethelevelofmechanisationatCarsebridgeandDundashill.Subjecttoconsultationwithemployees,thisproposeddevelopmentwillalsoresultintheclosureofworkshopsatLevenandBlythswood.Thechangesareexpectedtotakeplaceoverthenext12monthsandcouldleadtothelossofaround30jobs.“Thisisanotherstepinimprovingourhealthandsafetyaswecontinuetomoderniseouroperation.Overall,wemustremaincompetitiveandtheinvestmentinincreasedmechanisationmeanswehavetheopportunitytointroducemoreflexibilityandenhanceteamworkwhilstretainingcoreskills,”saysDiageo’sgraindistillingdirectorJeffMilliken.“Changeisalwayshardtomakeandwewillbedoingeverythingwecantominimisetheimpactandtodealwiththoseaffectedinasfairawayaspossible.”So,afterseveralyearsofdecliningnumbersinthecooperageprofession,andpossiblymoretofollow,howmuchworsecanitget?“We’veseenalotofcooperageclosuresoverthelastfiveyears,andIthinkaround80productioncoopersiswherethenumberswilllevelout,”saysWillieTaylor.Otherfactorscompoundthesituation,withfewerbarrelsremadeintohogsheads,andfewershooks(staves)madeupintobarrels.Bourbon’sglobalgrowthalsomeansanalreadyplentifulsupplyofbarrelsmaybecomeevenmoreabundant,whichislikelytoseepricesfall.Butthenpricesarealreadylow.“Recentlyithasbeenmoreeconomictopurchaseanex-bourbonbarrelthanrepairanex-thirdfillbarrel,thoughobviouslyyouneedtokeepthesamepercentageofbourbontorefillcasks”,saysRonWelsh,AlliedDistillers’inventoryplanningmanager.Thedeliveredcostofanewbourbonbarrelhasfallenbymorethan40percentinthepastthreetofouryears,andwithrepairsnowcostingabout60percentofthecostofnew,theeconomicsofrepairhaveclearlychangedsubstantially.Moreover,asthestandardofrepairsnowtendstobehigher,repairslastlonger.Handlingpracticesinpalletisedwarehousesalsoplayarole.Ifcasksareemptiedandfilledwhileremainingonthepallet,repairsarelesslikelycomparedtocasksrolledinandoutofwarehouses.“Aroundonepercentofpalletisedstockneedsrepairscomparedtoaround10percentofnon-palletisedcasks,soit’sasignificantcost-saving,”addsRonWelsh.ButwhathappensasandwhentheScotchwhiskyindustryentersanothergrowthphaseandproductionlevelsincreaseagain?“Whendistillersgetuptomaximumproduction,80cooperswillnotbecapableofservicingtheindustry,sowe’llhavetoseehowwemanagethat,”saysWillieTaylor.“Somecoopersmaybewillingtocomebackintotheindustry,thoughitcanbedifficultforthemtogetbackintotheswing,andmechanisationmayenableustodomoreworkwithfewermen.”