The first event I booked for the Spirit of Speyside Festival was a tour of Speyside Cooperage. Located right outside Craigellachie, just a stone’s throw away from the distillery, the cooperage supplies casks to many distilleries in the region but also in other parts of Scotland and even other countries. The bulk of their business consists of refurbishing used casks for refilling, but they also offer new casks.
In the past, every distillery had their own coopers, but centralized facilities like the Speyside Cooperage turned out to be more effective, so today only a few distilleries like Glenfiddich or Ardmore still do cooperage work on site.
When approaching the cooperage you will first notice the huge mountains of old casks that are stocked there for refurbishment. Much to my amazement the site makes a rather “touristy” impression, at least as much as visitor magnets like nearby Glenfiddich distillery or the Famous Grouse Experience. A little flower pot train made from miniature casks adorns the lawn near the car park, and a well-kept garden with scissor-clipped grass invites the visitors to take a rest.
Unlike their regular tour where visitors can only look down on the workshop through windows on the upper floor, the (more expensive) festival tour offered the possibility to watch the coopers right at their workplace.
But first of course all visitors received their reflective vests, protective glasses and ear plugs to ensure maximum safety on the tour. As has become almost a tradition on visitor tours, it kicked off with the inevitable video presentation of the cooperage with a short history section and an overview on the basics of this traditional craft. After a more in-depth explanation of the goings-on in the workshop at the “visitors gallery”, a senior staff member led the group downstairs to the yard where courageous visitors could have a go at assembling a shook of cask staves inside a hoop. But I have to admit that I preferred to take a few pictures of the very photogenic cask mountains instead.
We then were shown the part of the workshop where the refurbished casks are re-charred over an open fire. The casks are covered for a while to let the heat build up, then the cover is removed so the flames can fully char the interior. After several seconds the fire is extinguished with a water hose. The time of charring may vary according to the demands of the distillery that commisioned the cask.
In the main workshop, about ten coopers per shift are working on refurbishing the used casks. They mark staves, heads or hoops that need revision or replacement, disassemble the casks and reassemble them again after the necessary work has been done.
When watching the coopers you immediately see how hard their job is. Especially the hammering down of the hoops when reassembling a cask is a tough work. Coopers are paid per cask, so very understandably they did not do us the favour to stop working and have a little chat with us when we came into the workshop. They can refurbish up to twenty casks per shift. Apprenticeship for becoming a cooper is four years, and according to the tour guide there seems to be no shortage of young people willing to learn this difficult craft. Apprentices have their own corner in the workshop where they can practice their abilities without disturbing the senior workers.
Modern machinery has made some of the work a little easier, such as shaping the staves or assembling the lids, but much of the work is still done the old fashioned way. The staves of the casks are made leakproof simply through the pressure applied by the hoops, the lids are sealed with a special variety of reed that swells when it becomes wet.
The hoops are finally tightened again with a hydraulic press, then a mixture of water and compressed air is injected into the casks to check for leaks. The compressed air will push the water out of any leaks which can then be recognized by a burst of bubbles.
Apart from supplying the distilleries with casks, the cooperage also does some “recycling” work for unusable casks. They are transformed into flower pots, furniture and other gadgets.
In summary, this visit has proven to be very insightful concerning the workflow for refurbishing used casks. The Speyside Cooperage really is an amazing place, and I am glad that I hat the chance to experience it from close.