A new chap­ter: fa­ther to son

Chris Kane is the first cooper to grad­u­ate in Ire­land for over 30 years, join­ing his fa­ther in the Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BUSHMILLS ANSWER THE CALL -

Some 6,000 coop­ers once worked this ar­ti­san trade in Ire­land, build­ing and main­tain­ing wooden bar­rels and casks for the thriv­ing whiskey and beer in­dus­tries that have be­come Ire­land’s call­ing card around the world.

Tech­nol­ogy rapidly over­took the trade in re­cent decades and metal pushed wood to the mar­gins as the craft of cooper­ing be­came al­most ex­tinct. To­day there are only six coop­ers left in Ire­land, North and South, and you’ll find two of them in the beat­ing heart of the Cooper­age in the Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery in North­ern Ire­land. Chris Kane is the new­est re­cruit and joins his fa­ther Alas­tair in a fam­ily busi­ness that has charted four gen­er­a­tions. Chris’s great-grand­fa­ther Jimmy Kane started his own jour­ney here in 1935.

Alas­tair comes to life as he re­flects on the jour­ney his fam­ily tree has taken in the dis­tillery. It’s a won­der­ful story of home, au­then­tic­ity and a well­worked life: grand­par­ents, par­ents, un­cles, aunts and cousins of the Kane fam­ily have all been em­ployed here across gen­er­a­tions and there can be no un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the role the dis­tillery has played in their lives – and that of the town of Bush­mills over­all.

To have his son carry on that line is a great thing he says and mir­rors the new lease of life the whiskey in­dus­try is un­der­go­ing. “There were once 12 coop­ers work­ing here but over the years, one by one they all left un­til even­tu­ally I was the last one,” he ex­plains. “I hon­estly didn’t think there would be another cooper ap­pren­ticed.”

His son Chris fin­ished the four-year ap­pren­tice­ship with the Na­tional Cooper­age Fed­er­a­tion a year ahead of sched­ule, his early grad­u­a­tion cel­e­brat­ing the skill handed down to him by his fa­ther that gave him a head-start in this gru­elling train­ing course.

“I started work­ing with my fa­ther and grand­fa­ther as a boy,” he says. “They taught me skills that most peo­ple don’t get to ex­pe­ri­ence un­til they are much older.” He cred­its this fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence as help­ing him through the course.

He reaches for the tools he used dur­ing his ap­pren­tice­ship – mod­ern ver­sions of older tools that his great-grand­fa­ther used and which they still use to­day.

Both men be­come an­i­mated as they tell the story of these tools which are close to one hun­dred years old and pre­vi­ously used by gen­er­a­tions of their fam­ily. They show the dents on the metal and the grooves in their han­dles that have been moulded by many decades of hard work. Their trade has real mean­ing for them.

The cooper­age in Bush­mills is a large space, de­signed for teams of men to roll, shape, beat and per­fect the bar­rels that hold and ma­ture Bush­mills Ir­ish whiskey. A large part of the char­ac­ter of Bush­mills comes from these bar­rels. The role of the wood they are made of is one of the most im­por­tant el­e­ments in the cre­ation of Bush­mills Ir­ish whiskey.

We’re sur­rounded by bar­rels that have ar­rived here from all over the world – Amer­i­can oak bar­rels that were pre­vi­ously used to ma­ture bour­bon, bar­rels from Spain that once held Span­ish Oloroso sherry or port.

The Bush­mills coop­ers take these and re­build or re­pair them, ready­ing them for fill­ing with re­cently dis­tilled spirit which will, over time, be­come the fa­mous Bush­mills Ir­ish whiskey in all its forms.

The dis­tillery ware­houses are liv­ing breath­ing places. Ma­tur­ing for any­thing from three years and a day to over forty years the bar­rels ex­pand and con­tract with age and ac­cord­ing to the tem­per­a­ture of the ware­house. It’s in re­ac­tion to this mat­u­ra­tion process that the coop­ers play their most vi­tal role.

As the wood ages and the spirit within ma­tures, cracks or changes can ap­pear in the wood. The coop­ers are on call to travel deep into the Bush­mills ware­houses to re­pair, main­tain and pro­tect the casks as they age.

The aroma of the whiskey age­ing in these bar­rels is an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence and the idea of Chris and Alas­tair and gen­er­a­tions of their fam­ily work­ing to pro­tect the Bush­mills spirit that cre­ates it is a pow­er­ful im­age.

The fa­ther and son team re­flect on the pu­rity of spirit within the bar­rels and the wa­ter it comes from. Out­side, the Bush­mills river flows through the town and it is from a trib­u­tary of this, called Saint Columbs Rill, that Bush­mills is sourced, they ex­plain.

It’s an au­then­tic part of the Bush­mills story that has real mean­ing for them and, like the river it­self, they are once again as­sured that their fam­ily name will con­tinue to flow through the Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery.

Watch our video with Chris and Alas­tair Kane in the Bush­mills cooper­age at irish­times.com/bush­mills

The aroma of the whiskey age­ing in these bar­rels is an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence and the idea of Chris and Alas­tair work­ing to pro­tect the Bush­mills spirit that cre­ates it is pow­er­ful

A cooper’s life: Chris Kane and his fa­ther Alas­tair at the Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery

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