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To produce award-winning whisky, it’s crucial we make sure our wood is of the highest quality. Each one needs to be able to stand the length of time expected for the whisky to mature, be it for 12 or even 50 years.
The craft of the cooper is a time-honoured craft that goes back over 2,000 years.
We keep this craft alive in our Dufftown and Girvan cooperages in Scotland.
Our casks hold such importance to the taste of our whiskies that we only entrust their preparation and maintenance to our on-site team of coopers.
At our two cooperages our expert craftspeople use centuries-old knowledge and tools every day.
They repair, rebuild, char, and seal the casks that breathe character into our whisky, a skill that takes four years to learn – and far longer to master.
Long-serving Head Cooper Ian McDonald has been with us for over 50 years. He’s been working with wood for so long that his hands know American oak from European by feel.
“American oak feels denser whereas European oak is thicker and interacts differently with the spirit,” explains Ian.
“I joined the company in 1969 having left school at the age of 15 and spent a year labouring before starting my cooper apprenticeship,” he says. “I’ve grown up as part of the wider Distillery family. It’s a great responsibility to be working with the oak that will give as much as 65% of our whisky its flavour as it matures.”
Ian is now passing on his skills to the next generation of craftspeople.
“Each new apprentice learns the tried and tested skills and techniques that have been used for centuries,” he adds.
“They learn how to hand repair and rebuild casks with no nails or glue, as well as calculate different oak depths and ratios without a measuring tape. Some casks will also need to be ‘toasted’ or charred to caramelise the wood sugar, just enough to open the pores but not enough to burn too deep.”
The fundamentals of coopering are more or less the same as they were in Roman times, but tools and machinery have evolved to assist in some steps of the process.
“We still do the majority of mending by hand, like replacing a stave if it cracks. But we have introduced machinery to help us remove or harden the hoops,” explains Ian. “Traditionally, this would be done manually with a hammer and driver – a very physical task.”
“To produce award-winning whisky, it’s crucial we make sure our wood is of the highest quality,” adds Ian.
“Each one needs to be able to stand the length of time expected for the whisky to mature, be it for 12 or even 50 years. We can’t always guarantee how the wood will react to the spirit, but we can ensure every cask is wind and watertight.”
“There’s no prouder feeling than when you’re wandering through duty free shops at the airport or supermarket aisles and you see the award-winning products you have helped to produce lining the shelves.”