As the Speyside area in Aberdeenshire contains some of the worlds top Whisky distilleries it makes perfect sense to find a Cooperage close by to build and repair the vital barrels used in the Whisky maturation process. I took a trip out to the Speyside Cooperage to find out more.
A little bit of history
The Speyside Cooperage is a part of the Malt Whisky trail situated next to the River Spey and River Fiddich. It was first opened by the Taylor family in 1947 and has expanded over the years. There are now several additional international locations including Alloa, Ohio and Kentucky. The current location is not the original site as the Cooperage was moved in 1991 to accommodate a larger production area and the inclusion of the visitor centre. The Tonnellerie Francois Freres Group, a French company, took over the business in 2008.
Interestingly, this is the only working Cooperage in the UK with a visitor centre where you can experience the art of coopering yourself in the form of a viewing platform where you can watch real coopers going about their daily duties.
Each year, this plant repairs (and produces) close to 150,000 barrels used by the surrounding distilleries in their Whisky production as well as other distilleries across the world.
The art of Coopering
The art of Coopering can be traced as far back as 5000 years with the ancient Egyptians demonstrating similar builds for their wooden storage tubs around 2600 BC. Many of the skills used by the coopers today have been handed down over centuries.
The term Coopering originates from the Latin word ‘Cupa’ which essentially means Barrel and refers to someone who makes wooden, staved barrels which are held together with metal hoops. The trick to their trade is to construct the barrels without using any glue or nails, allowing oxygen to permeate the liquid inside but preventing leaks.
As this is an artisan trade, it can take a number of years to qualify as a cooper. During an average day, a trainee might work on 8-10 barrels whilst an expert could manage as many as 13. As a Cooper is only paid per barrel completed instead of a monthly salary there is always an incentive to work hard all day, and this is hard work!
Coopers go through a rigorous training program which is at least a year-long supervised by the more experienced Coopers. There is a graduation ceremony, called trussing, marking the completion of training. The newly qualified Cooper will build a large barrel which his peers will fill with oil, shavings, soot and feathers before wriggling inside and allowing his mates to roll him around! Have a look at the video below to see a freshly qualified Cooper go through this time-honoured ceremony.
The majority of wood used to age Whisky comes from American White Oak. This tree generally takes around 150 years to grow to the size required and due to this, there is going to be a limited supply. American White Oak is a wide species with many different types to be found in the United States. This issue is compounded as only a few species are suited to making Whisky barrels. The trees are selected based on criteria that include sizing of at least 25 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter.
As the ‘rules’ for Whisky differ between Scotland and the USA, many of the second-hand barrels used in Scotland are second hand from the Bourbon industry in the US. Whisky brands like Jack Daniels often only age their Whisky for 4 years and do not reuse the barrels at all. These Barrels are sold on to a variety of different places such as Hot Sauce manufacturers, Beer producers and of course, the Scotch Whisky industry. Second hand ‘Sherry casks’ are also used to enhance Whisky flavours and these often come from the South West of Spain, an area well known for producing Sherry and Port.
The Speyside Cooperage Tour
I was lucky to arrive on a fairly quiet day and hopped on a tour without pre-booking, if you go over the busier summer months I would advise you to make sure you book in advance. The cost of the tour is only £4 per person and lasts around 45 minutes which I felt was excellent value. There is also the option for a VIP tour which costs £30 per person and lasts 90 minutes – the main difference here is you will get to go down on the shop floor for a closeup view and the chance to build your own tiny barrel under the guidance from a Cooper.
To fill in 30 minutes, and as we had been outside for a while in the cold, we had a quick coffee and a bowl of soup in the coffee shop followed by a quick visit to the gift shop where you can find an interesting range of Whisky related goodies. You can even buy your own barrel if you want to, however, the most popular seems to be the half barrel which you can use as a planter in your garden! The coffee shop had the usual selection of refreshments you would expect and all the seats were fashioned in the shape of miniature barrels!
The tour is broken up into a couple of sections. Firstly, a video with some history and information followed by a tour through the Cooperage itself.
The process begins with the barrels going through an inspection to assess the level of reconditioning required. You can be pretty confident that most of them will need some form of work, even if it simply knocking the metal hoops down slightly to tighten up the gaps between the wooden staves.
All the work is done by the Coopers using authentic hand tools and fairly large hammers, which I was quite surprised about. I thought there would be more mechanisation involved considering the manual labour required. Much of the work is performed visually using skills and experience gained over the years.
Once the Coopers have performed necessary repairs, the barrels have liquid pumped in and are pressure tested by a machine (image below), this is simply to ensure there are no leaks – I am sure the distilleries don’t want their precious spirits leaking out over the years as the angels already get their fair share! Barrels passing the test will be shipped off to the distilleries and those that don’t will head back to a Cooper for further inspection.
After the main tour, we were offered the opportunity to try and put together some miniature barrels to test our Coopering skills of which I can honestly say, I have none whatsoever.
On the way out there were some interesting signs on the wall to read along with barrel tops from different distilleries the Speyside Cooperage has worked with over the years. There is every chance you recently enjoyed a dram that was aged in a barrel repaired at the Speyside Cooperage!
Overall, I highly recommend a visit to the Cooperage if you are in the area. The tour is informative, interesting and the guides add a little bit of humour to make the whole experience worthwhile, especially if you are a Whisky enthusiast!
Where is the Speyside Cooperage?
The Cooperage can be located at the following address