The Sharp End: Rolling out the barrels

At a Scots distillery, Dave 'the Stave' Waller jumps through hoops to learn to be a cooper.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I'm off to Scotland, and Diageo's Cambus distillery, to try my hand at being a cooper. As I'm not your natural handyman, it's sure to be a barrel of laughs. Albeit one with huge leaks in it.

A barrel is, of course, merely one size of cask. I learn this as we drive into the 400-acre site, beneath the snowy Ochil Hills of Clackmannanshire, dormant casks lining the road like tyres at a racetrack. We pass row after row of massive warehouses, where three million casks of Johnnie Walker, Bell's and J&B Rare sit maturing for up to 18 years. Yes, I have finally found it: the drive-through booze cabinet.

The liver recoils at the prospect, but the modern whisky trade demands such scale. For producers, whisky is the glass that never empties - far-flung nations like Japan are considered mature markets now, and demand is soaring in Latin America and China. And it's still all about character: by law, scotch whisky has to be aged in oak, so this remains a handmade game. You can't just fall back on injection moulding. That may warm the soul in this age of mass-produced uniformity, but someone still has to make all those casks.

In fact, the 40 coopers here have to roll out 250,000 of them a year. No wonder the place has been set up like a car plant. It's a long production line of shiny steel, hanging hooks and giant robotic arms sweeping casks up and into the path of industrial flame. But it still has that human touch: muscular blokes kick around in leather aprons, beating metal with huge hammers. It looks like Thor and his mates having a day out in a Ford factory. The technology may have moved on, but the clanging noises and smell of sweet distillation and burnt oak won't have changed since the 17th century, when canny Scots hid their booze in wooden casks to fox the taxman.

The longest-serving cooper here is Billy Dawson. He has been at it 43 years. His colleague, John Carberry, tells me how his own grandfather was a cooper, as is his uncle and his cousin and, if all goes to plan, his son too. John explains how the casks arrive in flat pack, having been previously used in the US to store bourbon. It's like an alcoholic Ikea. American oak even has the nickname 'bastard oak', because it's so tough to work. I watch John expertly put the staves in place - then he pulls a lever and the machine works its muscle, squishing them into a whisky-tight cask.

With all the automation around, it seems surprising that an apprenticeship still lasts four long years. In fact, in the apprentice shop next door, it seems as though time has stopped moving. You'd be pushed to spot a plug socket. It's all wood, blades and putting your back into it. Discarded hoops and staves lie around among a collection of weathered tools - the adze, the croze and the in-shave.

Derek Cook, head of apprentice training, tells me how most of his kit is 60 to 70 years old, passed on from his grandfather via his father. Now his job is to ensure the skills pass down the same way. 'It's still a 99% physical job,' he says. 'And if anything went wrong out there we'd have to go back to doing it by hand, so you have to know how to do it.'

I watch one of his apprentices, Darren Cummings, build a hogshead, a 52-gallon cask. Without all the machinery, it starts to look like a pub game. The challenge is to grab all the staves that are leant against the wall in a tight bunch, haul them round, and then, starting with one stave leaning against your leg, hold the metal hoop around the top and add the rest one by one around the circle. Darren's clearly an expert, building the cask with focus and dexterity, but it doesn't look easy.

They call it raising a cask. I wonder whether that's also how you toast yourself when you complete your first one. My attempt turns into a game of Giant Jenga - the hoop slips down and pieces start crashing to the floor. Once that happens, I'm doomed - it's impossible to bend down and pick them up with the rest of the staves supported by your leg. Derek points out the gaps that have been developing as I've gone round. Whisky wouldn't last 18 seconds in there, let alone 18 years. Still, as any scotch drinker will appreciate, quality takes time to develop.

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