Roll Out The Barrel
Willie Shand visits Speyside Cooperage to find out more about a fascinating traditional craft.
IAll of the timber used by the cooperage comes from sustainable forests. The logo of the Speyside Cooperage sums it up well – Acorn to Cask. t’s been said that if you throw a stone anywhere in Speyside, it has a good chance of hitting a distillery. That’s no exaggeration – Glenfiddich, Ballindalloch, Glenfarclas, Glen Grant, Aberlour, Glen Dronach, Glenlivet and many more world-famous names are tucked away in every recess.
Speyside lies at the very heart of Scotland’s malt whisky country. Here, you don’t need to drink to become intoxicated – just go for a walk.
Within the bonded warehouses millions of gallons of whisky, the water of life, will mature for many years. The casks may be full to start with, but after three, five, ten or however many years, when opened again, a large percentage will be missing, evaporated through the cask into the open air.
That’s maybe why everyone in Speyside looks so happy – it’s more than blood runs through their veins!
This evaporated volume is known as the Angels’ Share. The longer the maturing period, the more will evaporate, hence the more expensive a bottle of the stuff becomes.
Each distillery produces its own particular and distinct whisky using well-guarded secrets. The basic ingredients, however, are pretty much the same – barley and good spring water. But there is another factor that will greatly influence the flavour and colour of the end product and that is the cask itself.
This morning, I’ve driven north to Craigellachie where preparations are underway for the start of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. I’ve not come all this way to tour a distillery, but rather to visit a place that makes these all-important casks – the Speyside Cooperage.
Craigellachie sits above the right bank of the River Spey about four miles north of Dufftown. At 110 miles long, the Spey, famed for its salmon, is second only in length to the River Tay.
The Speyside Cooperage stands out on the Dufftown road on the top side of
The American casks hold 40 gallons. Hogsheads hold 56 gallons and Spanish butts 110 gallons. the village. While many distilleries open their doors to welcome visitors, this is the only cooperage in the UK with a visitor centre and where you can actually watch the coopers at work.
Coopering is an ancient art. It was even practised 5,000 years ago in Egypt. Yet how many of us would know just what’s involved in the daily work of a cooper? How many of us would know when you’d use a chiv plane as opposed to a stave plane, a crumb knife, a croze or a skillop? By the end of the day, hopefully I’ll be a bit wiser.
Speyside Cooperage was established in 1947 and in the courtyard a wee grey lorry from that era stands loaded up with casks. Lorries have changed a lot since 1947; the business has considerably expanded but the product, the cask, has not changed. With a lifespan of around 60 years, there are probably a few casks from 1947 still in use today.
A good number of the cooperage’s 14 full-time coopers and six apprentices will be following in their fathers’ footsteps, their skills passed down father to son. That was certainly the case for former cooper Ronnie Grant