Further faults in the timeline. Funny times, funny measures!
Today I revisit the 11th day of July 2016 and one experience I’ll not forget – a tour of the Speyside Cooperage with Whisky Lounge Backstage! I wholeheartedly recommend the tour to anybody. History teachers, get your students out of the classroom for a lesson on the industrial revolution that they can grasp first hand.
If whisky distillery tour guides are inclined to overplay the ‘traditional tools and methods’ line, the Speyside Cooperage can claim this without provocation. No picture or video can truly capture the stark brutality of coopering. Know this. Coopers are hardcore!!
Weatherwise, it was a miserable old day. That’s why we had to wear hi-vis jackets – to cheer the place up!
We survive the tour video, oh lordy! What I did pick up from it, however, was that the Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie is ‘the largest independent cooper in the UK‘. Since 2008, it has been owned by TFF Group who own additional cooperages in Kentucky, Alloa and Ohio.
We are told the ‘Father of Kentucky bourbon’ Elijah Craig’s grandmother is reported to have come from Craigellachie. Either this is a clutching at provenance straws old wives tale or a playful windup. It’s hard to tell as our strict and intimidating ex-army tour guide is as dry as a bone marrow transplant, but my money is firmly on the latter.
We get the ‘safe and healthy’ brief. Then before we know it, we are in the heart of the action, surrounded by flaming and steaming casks.
We are told virgin casks are burnt over an open fire for up to 40 minutes. Older/refill casks get rejuvenated through re-charring. Charring levels, specified by each distillery are as follows:
- Light: 60 secs
- Medium: 90-100 secs
- Heavy: 2.5 minutes
Charred casks are then power-steamed. This rectifies the rapid loss of moisture during the charring process.
Most casks from the US come flat-packed and need re-assembling. Likewise, used casks in need of repair are disassembled and put back together using the same traditional tools that have been used for generations. This is where coopers earn their keep.
Coopers start their nine-hour shifts at 7am, working five days a week on a pay-per-cask rate. On average, coopers make 18-20 casks a day. Really skilled coopers may do 25. They enjoy five weeks annual holiday plus two more weeks when the cooperage is closed for maintenance. With such back-breaking/monkey shoulder work, they need all the ‘recooperation‘ they can get.
Of course, the Speyside Cooperage has seen some modernisation, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Here, prepared casks are tested for water tightness.
We were on-site for an hour watching coopers, driven by the promise of good money and an early exit, continually working as if they were focused on preparing for an imminent war. Indeed they do get paid well, but at what cost? The style of work with long hours looked utterly crippling. Only a few coopers, we are told, last more than a few years ‘on the floor’, but that one has been coopering here for over 25. Contrast this with the more relaxed/pedestrian Balvenie Cooperage where health legislation has resulted in a less pressured workload/quota. However, the same methods apply.
With only fifteen coopers [at time of writing], it is believed the Speyside Cooperage makes & repairs more than 100,000 casks a year. Stunned/taken-aback, we enter the cafe & gift shop all in need of a stiff tonic. It comes with tea and shortbread.
Speyside Cooperage 10yo Ob. Acorn to Cask 40% WB78.59
Ignoring the ‘Acorn to Cask’ marketing flannel, regarding the whisky, the coopers wouldn’t tell us what it is. It’s also likely most don’t know. In fact, many coopers don’t care for whisky at all. The same can be said for the Scots in general.
- N: This batch [July 2016] is a spicy, mild, malty whisky with a touch of peat. Becomes richer with time.
- T: Same as the nose. Creamier and sweeter into the finish
- F: A touch of peat then leaning towards a malty toasted-ness with some greenish notes.
- C: A fair malt at a fair price [£35 at time of writing].
Scores 78 points
We all reflect on the enlightening day. The Foz [along with auto-Google], collate and compose an overview of the experience to music. Charge!
Further reading: speysidecooperage.co.uk