It is said that about 70 per cent of a whisky’s flavor and 100 per cent of its (natural) color come from the cask. When you put a sub-par distillate into top-quality wood, the result will usually be decent at least. But when you fill excellent new make into weak barrels, you will most likely end up with a shallow, bland and unsatisfactory product. Thus, the cooper – i.e. the person that assembles and refurbishes the casks for the distilleries and blending companies – plays a key role in the value chain. Without his skilfull work, the drams we drink would be a lot less eclectic and exciting.
Despite the importance of his craft, the cooper rarely ever takes the spot in the limelight. While we all know superstar master blenders, distillery managers or brand ambassadors, I don’t think that too many of us know the names of the industry’s most talented, productive or long-serving cask makers. Well, thanks to our visit to the Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie, my girlfriend Dini and I are now familiar with at least one such craftsman, namely Crazy Pete. On a normal work day, this hyper-productive fellow finishes about 30 casks (which is five to ten casks above the average). Watching him as well as Speyside’s other twelve coopers and eight apprentices pursue their trade is something you would not want to miss out on when you are in the region!
Dini and I arrived at the Cooperage at round about 14.45 pm. Since the next tour was already fully booked, we had to kill some time before we could hop onto the 15.30 pm walkabout. We did so by enjoying the sun outside and having a yummy soup in the cafe associated to the gift shop. Afterwards, our guide Steve took us to the visitor gallery from where we had a great view of the working area. While we learned a lot about the age-old cooperage trade in general and Speyside’s take on it in particular, we watched the vibrant activity below. There were casks being assembled here, staves being toasted there and finished barrels being assorted elsewhere. As all of the workers are paid by finished products rather than time served, none of them stood still for too long. It was a bit like watching an anthill from above. No matter where you looked, your eyes always caught something well worth observing.
Throughout his lecture, Steve told us that the Speyside Cooperage – which is the only one of Scotland’s eight working cooperages with a visitor centre – primarily works for the whisky industry. The occasional beer or cidre casks they also prepare are so few and scattered that they do not constitute more than a footnote. Furthermore, he noted that the Cooperage barely builds any new casks (about 200 per year). The bulk of their work consists of repairs and refurbishments (approx. 100,000 per anno). And then he revealed that they are still waiting to hire their first lady cooper. So far, however, all their apprentices have been men. So if you are a Scottish lassie reading this and thinking to yourself “That needs tae be changed”, you know where to send your application.
Our tour of the Speyside Cooperage ended with a so-called 4D film about the cooper’s long-established craft. The additional dimension was provided by numerous gimmicks that supported the images on the screen. For example: When we watched a cask being charred, the room was lit in red light, the temperature rose and the smell of wood smoke filled our nostrils. The closing movie (which is shown prior to the guide’s talk in the earlier tours of the day) was great fun and an entertaining, clever way to end (or in other cases begin) a highly recommended whisky experience!
Name: Speyside Cooperage
Address: Dufftown Road, Craigellachie, Banffshire, Scotland AB38 9RS, GB
Opening hours: Mon to Fri from 9am to 7pm; tours start ever 30 minutes from 9am till 3.30pm
More info: http://www.speysidecooperage.co.uk/