There are many important jobs within the Scotch Whisky industry, but one vital role is that of the cooper. The art of coopering the casks using hand tools is a craft in itself, involving skills and knowledge that must be passed down from one generation to the next.
The cooper trade goes back many years to antiquity and the word cooper itself is thought to derive from the Latin word cupa, meaning vat. At one time, there would have been tens of thousands of coopers working in Britain, making casks for the preservation and transportation of all sorts of commodities.
However, the number of coopers in the Scotch whisky industry has declined since the heyday of 1980 when 1,017 coopers were employed in Scotland, although thankfully it is currently higher than its low point of 188 coopers in 2005 (due to the closure of two cooperage sites by Diageo). According to The National Cooperage Federation, the number of coopers since 1985 are as follow:
In 2018, there were 184 coopers and 37 apprentices (totalling 221), employed across the whisky industry and engaged mostly in production but also in commercial cooperages.
Increasing mechanisation (and the use of metal casks for storing beer in the Brewing Industry) are the reasons for the decline in coopers across the UK. On a positive note, there will always be a need for the judgment of a human eye and the skill of a human hand.
The workshop walls of the typical cooperage are lined with tools of designs which predate the industrial revolution. A cooper will usually use more than 20 different tools to build a whisky barrel.
Here you will find the croze board and the adze; borer, bick iron and belly knife; scullup, shiv and swarth. Coopers on the east and west coasts of Scotland have different names for their tools. These are attractive, obscure-looking pieces of kit, their precise use unclear from their appearance.
For reference – click here for a previous Inside the Cask blog post ‘Burn barrel burn!’
At a cooperage, the apprentices learn all aspects of coopering including cask handling, cask identification, how to find defects in the wood, remove defective wood and replace it, build new casks from scratch (from logs to finished casks) etc. Apprentices – such as those pictured below from Girvan Distillery – usually start at a young age and then work as a cooper for the rest of their lives. The craft requires skills that are passed down through generations.
Few Scotch whisky distilleries have a cooperage on site, one exception is Loch Lomond Distillery. The Loch Lomond Cooperage was opened in 1994 and its senior cooper was Tommy Wallace, who subsequently progressed on to become the President of the National Cooperage Federation between 2006-2008. Loch Lomond employs 5 full time experienced coopers with many years experience working for the company.
However, if you are interested in visiting a cooperage in Scotland, then The Speyside Cooperage is open to the public for tours. They are part of the TFF Group, a French owned cooperage and wood supplier with worldwide interests.
After all the hard work by the coopers, it is time to let the new make spirit rest as pictured below, until it emerges out as Scotch whisky…
For reference, here are some related articles and/or links on this topic: