Production

Washbacks and Mashtuns

The noble art of vessel making
By Gavin D. Smith
On any distillery visit it is always the copper pot stills that capture the imagination. They are, after all, essentially the beating heart of the distillery, and its most dramatic and eye-catching feature. So it is, that among all the discussions about the ongoing exciting growth in Scotch whisky output, many people have focused on the pressures placed upon companies like Forsyth's of Rothes and Diageo's own Abercrombie coppersmithing operation in Alloa.

But it takes much more than stills to make a distillery function, with capacity expansion particularly necessitating an increased number of washbacks. While many of these are now made of stainless steel, there is no shortage of distillers who prefer the traditional wooden versions, which is where Joseph Brown Vats of Dufftown Ltd comes in.

The company is owned and run by husband and wife Ron and Carrilee Low, and has its origin in the Parkmore Cooperage, established in the early 1920s by the Brown family. The facility was initially based at Parkmore distillery, which fell silent in 1931, and later the cooperage moved to a site off Balvenie Street, close to the centre of the 'malt whisky capital' of Dufftown, in the heart of Speyside.

It was to this location that a young Ron Low came to begin his career in 1984, having been born in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, moving to Dufftown at the age of eight, when his father got a job driving a lorry for William Grants & Sons Ltd.

Low recalls that "When I started with Browns, they were coopering casks and also making vats. Ian Brown was my 'journeyman' and effectively taught me two trades. I was bench-coopering and also going off to work on vats. Sandy Smart, one of three partners retired, followed by Ian Brown, and finally the third partner, Ian's brother Arthur also retired. I was now the only person left who could make vats, and so my wife and I took the decision to lease the workshop from Arthur Brown and carry on the business."

The Lows took on the enterprise in October 2002, and soon made an important strategic decision. As Ron Low explains, "The vat side of the business was busy, with enough to keep things going as it stood, so we stopped the coopering part of the operation.

"Most of the work is washbacks, though we have made a wooden mashtun for a distillery in Ireland, and some for the brewing industry. We also make spirit storage tanks, and have built saki vats for Japan and whisky washbacks for Sweden, not to mention storage and conditioning vessels for Henry Weston's cider company at Much Marcle in Herefordshire. We also make large tanks for testing underwater sonar equipment and vessels for the chemical industry."

At some time or another, the firm has worked for most distilleries in Scotland and Ireland, and one recent task was to make and install wooden washbacks in the soon to reopen Annandale distillery.

In addition to fabricating new vessels, a significant element of the company's workload consists of making annual inspections of existing vats in distilleries the length and breadth of Scotland and beyond, checking their soundness and, if necessary, carrying out repairs in situ.

Just as coppersmiths such as Forsyth's are inundated with work at present, so Joseph Brown Vats Ltd is similarly prospering. "We used to be making maybe two vats at a time but it got to the stage where we could be doing 10 or more at once," says Ron Low, "so we acquired a second workshop. It had been an electrical company's premises, located just a few hundred yards away. We took it over in March of last year.

"We've usually got five years' work ahead of us now, and we've certainly seen an increase in our workload in the past three to four years. Our biggest single contract has been from Diageo, to make 16 washbacks for Glen Ord, to be followed by a further 10 for the expansion of Teaninich. Previously, we made nine new washbacks for Chivas for their Glenlivet extension."

Currently, the firm employs six members of staff, along with two agency workers, while Ron Low is notably hands-on. "When we go out I drive the big lorry delivering pieces as I'm the only person in the company with an HGV licence," he says.

"It's hard physical work, handling the big pieces of timber," adds Low, "and measurements are obviously absolutely crucial to what we do. The art of very accurate measurement is something new staff have to learn, working out all the angles and tapers. Often customers will specify a capacity, and we have to calculate how to build a vessel to hold that amount. I've still got the calculation methods for that from Arthur Brown."

Washbacks, despite their size, are assembled by hand, usually by three men, with the hoops being hammered down into place with long 'pokers.' Most vessels are made in the Dufftown workshops and taken out in 'flat-pack' form to be assembled at the distilleries. Vessels that are of a size to go away in one piece are assembled in the 'bottom,' or original, yard. "The lads can be away for weeks staying in digs, as they have been for the Glen Ord installation and as they will be for Teaninich at Alness," notes Low.

The more recently acquired site is effectively a machine shop, equipped with mechanical saws and planers and a jointing machine that cuts the tapers into the stave edges, and cost no less than £140,000 second-hand! Wastage is minimal, with one machine taking in sawdust and compressing it into briquettes for domestic fires. On average some 25 to 30 bags are filled each day. Meanwhile, offcuts of wood that are too small to be used in other projects are sold for firewood.

While the distilleries with which the company mainly deals maintain the tradition of using wooden washbacks, stainless steel vessels have been fitted in many other plants. "There are constant debates about the merits of stainless steel versus wood," says Low. "Stainless steel backs cost more, even though timber prices are rising, but the temperatures are more stable in wooden washbacks and they hold natural bacteria, which it is claimed have a positive effect on the character of the whisky."

When it comes to the choice of materials for washback construction, Low says that "we tend to use Douglas fir from Oregon and Vancouver, and we're always looking for nice, tight grains. But we've just taken in a consignment of Siberian larch for a new washback at Strathisla, and Springbank swears by larch. It's slow grown and so is more stable and predictable than European larch, which is full of knots. Douglas fir and larch are soft woods, but very durable and suitable."

Like most craftsmen, Low gains satisfaction from seeing his creations in place, and doing their job effectively. With a smile he acknowledges job satisfaction and that "In new distilleries I like to see traditional wooden washbacks in the middle of 'space-age' computerised technology!"