The life of a whisky cask is romantic. It begins as a tall oak tree in the United States, a part of the great American landscape, in places like Tennessee. The wood is steamed until malleable, bent, pieced together, fastened by big metal rings, made into a barrel. Then, the likes of Jack Daniels or Jim Beam fill them with spirit. The bourbon is aged, bottled and the barrels cast off. By law, bourbon barrels can only be used once. So, off across the Atlantic they go, to Scotland, where scotch companies re-use the perfectly good barrels gladly. They can live on for up to 50 years of whisky aging. There's no bourbon-like rule that stipulates a single use. And then, when there's really no life left in them, they go off to the Scottish smoke houses as chips, ready to live on as the fragrant, worldly, smoky notes on salmon. Perhaps the coolest stop in the lifespan of a whisky cask is right here, at Speyside Cooperage.
The Cooperage works almost exclusively in mending American bourbon barrels along with sherry casks from Madeira. Whisky was traditionally made in old sherry casks from Spain, but when all of these once-used barrels became available from America, it was too good a thing to pass up. So, this is where they're christened European, disassembled and put back together with additional pieces, so that they're a bit bigger. They're checked for any damage, flame treated to give a new surface to the inside and tested for air tightness. Most scotch whisky distilleries "marry" spirits that have been aged in bourbon casks with ones that have been aged in sherry casks. The sherry casks may pass through the Cooperage from Madeira, needing the same repair and rejiggering as the bourbon barrels. Other sherry casks are made from (American oak) scratch right in the cooperage. Since it's become a little difficult to source old sherry casks from Spain - and that sherry note is a big part of the whisky recipe - distilleries have taken to filling barrels with sherry themselves, letting it sit in there for 2 odd years and then repurposing the casks for their own use.
The Cooperage used to get a great deal of business from beer breweries, but the switchover to stainless steel dealt a huge blow. Even a lot of whisky is being distilled in stainless steel, and the oak only comes into play at the aging process. The fear of this trade being lost has been potent since the 1940s. In fact, the rule that bourbon barrels can only be used once was created simply to make sure that American coopers would always have a job. It was a power play made by the Cooper's Union to recover from the blow dealt by Prohibition. What's ironic is that this rule probably wound up hurting the American cooperage field in the long run. The one-use rule protected the need for work that could be replaced by machines, but it took away any need for the work that only humans could handle. Machines can spit out the barrels and only being used once, the barrels require no mending or refinishing or recycling. The need for a cooper is cut out completely.
Scotland lost a fair share of jobs due to modernization, but as we were told "the machines can make casks, but they can't repair them" and since the flavor of whisky has so much to do with the life of the aging barrel. its seasoning, the human touch is necessary. The coopers are still vital. There are fifteen men and 2 apprentices currently at Speyside Cooperage. They get paid by the barrel, not the hour, rolling and hammering and inspecting, going over to a pile of discarded wood to see if maybe there's a piece that will fit their purposes perfectly. It reminded me of building a stone wall, searching the quarry for that one sorta pointy sorta round piece that you need. A jigsaw puzzle of your own design.
The coopers may be paid by the barrel, but their part of the team for life. The two tour guides on hand when we visited Speyside Cooperage were both former coopers, though they wouldn't use the word 'former' themselves. When we asked who was the longest running cooper still active in the place, they both named a man who was 75 years old. He was now in the back office, but that didn't make him any less of an active cooper in their eyes. The two guides were a study in contrasts. One was older, shorter and more enthusiastic, the other younger, taller and more reserved. The older was a hammer-wielding cooper for around 20 years. Short and compact, he looked like he could fit right into one of the casks. He pointed to a similarly sized man on the floor who'd been at it for over 25 years. "He's just the right size for a cooper. Not too tall." The younger tour guide stood over six feet and had to retire prematurely after his second shoulder operation. The work is physically gruelling and having to bend over more only makes the strain worse. Some modifications have been made in recent years. Earplugs, lighter hammers." They use 3 pound hammers now. We used 5."
Speyside Cooperage likes to say that each cask begins life as an acorn. I think it's interesting enough to skip ahead and just imagine the tall, mighty trees a few steps later. They live for 100 to 150 years old before being harvested for their wood. Only at that old age do they possess the qualities necessary. The coopers themselves tend to get better with age as well. It's a lifelong vocation, one that begins with an apprenticeship and ends with whatever service you can offer. Even if its showing a few tourists around. The Speyside coopers are all local men, the apprentices local boys. One cooper currently working here is from Hungary, but we were assured that he'd arrived with "all the proper paperwork" to vouch for his skills and experience as a cooper. And having been there for over a decade now, he's considered an honorary Scotsman. The reeds they use to seal the top of the casks come from a local furniture maker. The operation is as Scottish as scotch, a homegrown operation... even if the wood does come from America.
We stood in a viewing room, looking down on the operation. Coopers measured, hammered, examined, disassembled, reassembled. In another section of the huge space, workers cut wood to specifications, performed quality control processes. The apprentices along the back wall toiled diligently at building new casks. The Master Cooper watched over and tutored them. Against the backlighting of a midafternoon soon, we could see one man after another walk out the big warehouse doors and come back, rolling a cask beside him. A plume of smoke billowed out as if it were the top part of a chimney, hacked off, but with a last breath left in it. The inside of the cask is torched, igniting easily because of all that residual alcohol, and a new surface is made. You know a cask's life as a vessel is up when its refinished one too many times. The wood gets too thin. It's time for it to move on to the next phase, to retire to some smokehouse.