My country life: the whisky cooper

Fancy a dram to see off the last of winter? If you're lucky, your whisky may come from a Chris Chisolm barrel

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The first thing that hits you is the noise: the almost musical ringing of metal on metal reverberating around the workshop. The next, as you breathe in, is the sweet, heady scent of wood soaked in bourbon. Then as you look down you notice the grime. It’s black, wet and mucky underfoot. The workbenches are weathered wood, scattered with well-worn tools. Outside the Speyside Cooperage there are barrels brimming with flowers, but inside they’re hammered into shape for the local distilleries.

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Chris Chisholm, his forearms streaked black, has been a cooper for 41 years. “My father was in the industry and I’d go to work with him during the school holidays. Around here if you’re not directly working in the whisky industry, you’re linked to someone who is.”
 
That’s because Speyside is whisky country. The gently undulating hills of this corner of north-east Scotland are peppered with around 50 distilleries. And at every junction there seems to be a brown tourist board sign pointing the way to another tasting stop on the Malt Whisky Trail.
 
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Speyside has more distilleries than any other whisky producing area in Scotland
 

The Speyside Cooperage, bedded into an eiderdown of fields, is just outside the little village of Craigallachie. “Once, every village had its own cooperage. Craigallachie had three or four, Dufftown, where I was born, had two. Now they are almost all gone,” Chris tells me as he shows me around.“We still have 17 coopers here though – and four apprentices.”

Ancient craft

Coopering as a craft can be traced back more than 5,000 years. In Roman times, wine was stored in wooden casks or cupels and the barrel maker was called a cuparius. At first, barrels were made from any old wood, but when oak was used to store whisky they found that it improved the flavour.

“Oak prevents seepage but still allows the whisky to breathe,” says Chris. There are around 50 types of oak but only some are suitable for coopering, and it can take more than 100 years for the wood to be ready for harvesting. “We use American oak from Missouri to make new barrels – although most of the work we do now is repairing and remaking barrels for the distilleries.”

Chris leads me outside to see a graveyard of barrels, casks, hogsheads, butts and puncheons. The names – which denote the different sizes – have a wonderfully Dickensian ring to them. Some once held American bourbon, others sherry in Spain.

“European oak is harder on the nose so it’s used for whisky that’s aged longer. The American oak, saturated with bourbon, gives the whisky a softer, sweeter flavour.”

Mechanical assistance

“We still use the traditional methods and tools. However, the biggest change has been the introduction of machinery. When I first started there was no hoop driver [to realign barrel hoops], for instance. You used to have to put a chain around the cask to pull the staves in manually. Now it’s all hydraulics, which makes the job easier.”

“We start work at 7am and finish at five. The casks are lined up outside – you take one and figure out what needs doing to it. It’s still heavy work and it’s not for everyone. Some young lads think there are easier ways to earn a living, but it is rewarding. Each morning you never know what you’re going to get.”

As we wander back inside, flames are roaring out of the top of a barrel. Firing the barrels extends their life. You de-char or shave the barrels back to the fresh wood and then re-fire them to put a new carbon coat on the inside, which adds to the flavour of the whisky.

But does Chris like a dram? “Of course, but the local Speyside, not the peaty Islay malts. They’re too strong for me. Glenmorangie and Mortlach from Dufftown are my favourites. You’ve got to do your bit to keep the industry going.”

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THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 41 OCOUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!