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From Branch to Barrel: The Cooperage

29 September 2014

By Joel Harrison

Having seen a giant American white oak tree hand picked by a local lumberjack and delivered to a stave mill to be carefully sawn up, I stayed on the journey of this new-wood to see these newly harvest planks taken directly to one of the most important places in the whole of the whisky making process: the cooperage.

It isn't hard to see that there is a significant difference between a tall, straight American white oak tree and a short, round barrel. The magic of turning one into the other falls, once the tree has done the same, to the Cooper.

One of the oldest jobs in the world, the work of the Cooper is hard; proper physical stuff carried out by a team of highly trained chaps, all with one aim: turning American white oak into whisky-tight barrels.

As you can imagine, this process is not easy. Helped in part by some pieces of machinery, the role of the Cooper is still performed mainly by hand, using tools passed down for generations, and my visit to the Kelvin Cooperage, on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky is one of the best examples of a cooperage anywhere in the world.

Like Glenfiddich, the Kelvin Cooperage is still family-owned and family-run. It was set up by two Scottish brothers, Paul and Kevin McLaughlin, whose father was himself a Cooper in Glasgow. Being family-run gives their barrels an extra grounding in what is most important in whisky: traceability and lineage, just as that family touch at Glenfiddich adds an extra special level of care and attention over their precious liquid. As a result they are trusted to supply casks to some of the biggest names in the world of distilling, with a particular focus on casks required to mature Glenfiddich single malt Scotch whisky.

Showing off their Scottish roots by naming the cooperage after the river that runs through Glasgow, Kelvin Cooperage is a hive of activity, with the main operations floor of their large covered warehouse a visceral place, full of every type of energy imaginable: from noise, to heat, to movement... it is hard to visit and not be stunned by the sheer human endeavour that goes into making each cask.

What makes the process tricky is that wood is a naturally occurring substance. As it is not 'farmed', each stave produced is a different size, with a different weight and balance.

The first job for the Cooper is to create a bow in their staves, done by steaming and bending the wood. Once staves have been shaped, the truly difficult job (trust me: I have tried it!) of assembling a barrel starts. With each stave a different size, choosing the correct ones to make up a barrel, assembling them and tightening them with metal coils is quite a task; I wouldn't call these guys craftsmen, I would call them artists. As a result each barrel is unique, yet somehow the same.

Once the barrel has been assembled, the most elemental aspect of the production happens, when they are toasted over an open fire. Toasting enables the vanillins and the tannins in the wood to be released, giving the contents flavor and color. The toasting level can be adjusted to meet the needs of the distiller, from a light toasting (giving a light flavor and color) through to a heavily toasted effect (delivering strong and powerful flavors), where the inside of the cask is left looking like a crocodile skin handbag.

Cask toasting

After the heads are applied and the cask is tested (it must be watertight to hold any maturing liquor), the barrels are loaded onto trucks for the first job of their long lives: to hold American bourbon whiskey, before returning to the cooperage to be lovingly cared for and sent out yet again on their final special mission: to mature the spirit at home in the Scottish distillery, turning it into delicious single malt Scotch whisky.

Joel Harrison, co-founder of the whisky blog Cask Strength, recently set out to immerse himself in the journey of the world’s most awarded single malt. Over the next few weeks, follow his pursuit, from the forests of Kentucky to the depths of the Glenfiddich warehouses, as he delves into what makes our scotch unique.  The Journey Begins marks the first of Joel’s four contributions to our Ambassadors Blog, which culminate with the exciting new release of Glenfiddich 26 Year Old Excellence.