Production

The Goodwood Revival

Coopering apprentice Neil Ridley tries his hand at making a cask
By Neil Ridley
With the whisky industry placing greater emphasis on cask management, Diageo recently opened a brand new, £9m cooperage complex at Cambus in Clackmannanshire, combining modern technology with a traditional apprenticeship scheme.

We all know the importance of wood when it comes to maturing whisky, but just how important is the role of the cooper within the process? The art of coopering a cask from scratch seems a fairly antiquated approach in today’s modern, forward-thinking whisky business. But with increased production demands from the new and emerging markets, the industry is faced with a dilemma; repair and assemble more quality casks by hand in the traditional way, or find new ways to extend the life of existing casks, to meet the demand. It’s an issue that potentially pits man against machine-something that rankles with the traditional view of coopering being one of the last, great artisanal crafts left in the business.

Diageo’s answer has been to approach the problem head on with an intriguing mix of tradition, underpinned by modern manufacturing practices. With the number of people entering the coopering trade falling and the profession heavily reliant on the skills of existing coopers, Diageo have undertaken the bold step in establishing a cooperage school as an integral part of their brand new, multi-million pound Cambus complex, which took 15 months to build, production of which was completed in late June this year.

Alan Haddon, project delivery manager at the cooperage was the man tasked with bringing the two worlds together. “The main emphasis of this facility,” explains Alan “is to retain the core skills of coopering, whilst making it an efficient and, more importantly – a safer environment to work in.” Bobby Sinclair, business leader at Cambus sees the growth of coopering as one of the most fundamental aspects in the whisky industry - and one that is finally receiving the recognition that it deserves. “Eight or nine years ago, no one wanted to become a cooper but today, there’s a big shift in mindset towards learning a craft,” he points out. “We have apprentices from other areas of the whisky business, warehousemen and stillmen for instance, so knowledge of how the industry works as a whole gives them a very solid grounding.”

The primary role of the new Cambus facility is the rejuvenation and repair of Diageo’s seven million casks currently in circulation and touring round the brand new shop floor, the integration of technology and tradition is clear to see. Removing the existing char from used casks was a laborious and inconsistent process, beset with problems but now a fully automated shaving process strips used casks back to the bare wood, before they are re-charred. “Shaving casks exposes the underlying fresh wood, which is then heat treated (toasted and charred) to produce an active wood surface tailored for our maturation requirements,” explains Jim Beveridge, master blender for Johnnie Walker. Once this process is complete, robotic arms (like the sort one would expect to see in a car manufacturing plant) manipulate the freshly shaven casks into automated furnaces where they are treated to a three-minute char. Diageo’s James Carson has analysed the effects of new make spirit in rejuvenated casks and feels that this new process will greatly extend the usable life of the wood. “Shaving and re-charring casks twice should extend their life to around 150 years” he explains. “So some of the casks our coopers are working on today will effectively become a physical legacy.”

Whilst automation in the cooperage industry began in the 1970’s at Diageo’s Carsebridge site, the current production techniques allow a shift of 16 coopers to turn around 500 casks, which is a significant increase on previous numbers.

What is clear is the presence of trained coopers at every stage of the production line. “It’s impossible to take out the physical aspect of coopering,” points out Alan Haddon. “The sizes of the cask are all so variable that you’ll always need the manual element and a retention of the core skills”

So just what is it like to become a cooper today, and more intriguingly, how hard is it to raise a cask from scratch to professional standards? These were my primary questions when I met four of Cambus’s eight new apprentices and their mentor, Tutor-Cooper, Brian Tease, who began his career as a cooper more than 32 years ago, aged 16. “I started my trade at Bell’s in Broxburn,” explains Brian “where I worked closely with a mentor as a one–on–one relationship, learning the craft of coopering. Today, apprentice coopers begin developing their skills over an initial four-year period and we’ll assess their progress every six months with a variety of cask types that they’ve been working on. In the first year, apprentices learn to make repairs to hogsheads and progress onto sherry butts and bigger casks in their second year in the job.”

Watching Brian at work with his apprentices is a fascinating insight into a profession, which, in any other industry would have been fully automated by now to speed up efficiency. What strikes you is the level of detail and skill required to understand the relationship between the various tools used and the differing characteristics of the wood in a stave or cask end. “The Cooperage Federation helps apprentice coopers acquire some of the tools needed for the job, such as a hammer, driver, adze and crum knife (used for shaping the curves on a stave) and they’ll guard them with their lives,” points out Brian. “In many cases, coopers in the early stages of their career pick up tools from other coopers who are retiring as the quality is second to none. Most coopers are still using the same set of tools they had from when they started out –once you get used to them, it’s very hard to use someone else’s.”

The final goal for an apprentice is a trade test, which is adjudicated by the Coopering Federation and consists of a day of practical assessment from someone chosen for their technical competency, sometimes coopering managers from other cooperages. It’s a chance for the apprentice to display a collective four years of knowledge from rising a shook of staves to a fully sealed hogshead, repairing a butt or puncheon, or carving and fitting the ends to a cask.

After watching one of the apprentices successfully raise a puncheon, it was time for me to have a go at building a barrel for myself, and at this point, in front of Brian and his clearly talented apprentice coopers, I was beginning to sweat. The sheer physicality involved in moving a cask around is one thing, but the level of accuracy displayed by the apprentices after just five months in the job was pretty awe-inspiring. In stark contrast, I had a couple of hours to impress. I got off to a reasonable start, assembling a shook of 24 differently sized staves into their supporting hoop without the whole thing collapsing, but my pride was short-lived. Trying to manipulate the other hoops into the right place was an incredible test of brute force and pinpoint accuracy and, if I’m honest, I lacked the strength needed to wield the hammer and driver safely, narrowly missing my thumb after only a few swings.

With a little help, my cask was completed in an hour and a half, but the flaws were clear to see and under Brian’s high standards, it would have most likely been rejected before being sent for filling.

No matter how much the more mundane aspects of coopering are automated, Cambus cooperage undoubtedly highlights the symbiotic relationship between tradition and technology, as well as the importance of bringing new blood into the coopering profession. Once these apprentice coopers have entered the shop floor, they will keep on developing their skills and it’s something, which clearly gives Brian a sense of satisfaction. “Coopering is really a craft that keeps teaching you a lot throughout your life. It’s like a process of elimination and each cask presents you with a different set of challenges.”

Based on the challenges I encountered, I don’t think I’ll be troubling Brian for a job any time soon...