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Monday, 19 April 2010

Oh, We Do Like To Be Beside The Speyside- Part 3



Friday Afternoon. With the weather resembling a wonderful summers day, we decided to take a leisurely stroll down to our next destination, Speyside Cooperage.

The Cooperage is undoubtedly one of the most important sites in Dufftown, supplying literally hundreds of thousands of casks to the whisky and wine businesses across the globe since 1947. Our guide for today was Gary Taylor, Master Cooper and an all-round raconteur in the world of casks…. One thing’s for sure- he certainly doesn’t have a wooden personality- in fact, you could say he’s a real barrel of laughs… (Oh dear, our gags are getting worse I suspect…)



Gary and his team pride themselves on the fact that wood science and attention to detail are the mantras behind maturing a great whisky. This is reinforced by the very informative video at the start of the tour, which taught us a great deal, including the difference in grain thickness between European oak and American oak and the type of production techniques needed in assembling a new cask or re-juvenating a tired one.



To see the coopers in action is one of the most exciting and visually arresting sights you’ll see in the whisky business- the cooperage floor is a hive of activity, with experienced craftsmen pounding, shaping and assembling their creations at a furious pace. You soon realise the reason behind their frantic work rate is that each and every cooper is on ‘piece work’- ease up on the gas and you produce fewer casks and get paid less, but conversely, go too fast and you risk making errors, which will certainly not go unnoticed by Gary and his exceptionally high standards. It really is a fine balance and these guys have it totally nailed.



Heading outside into the storage yard and Gary kindly shows us a little of the magic behind the great casks they are producing. The end cask ‘heads’ are hugely important to the maturation (they constitute 40% of the total wood surface area of barrel, fact fans!) as well as the individual staves and no corners are cut during their production. Special Dutch reeds are imported in and are used to seal the ends into the casks, the sugars inside becoming caramelised over time with the contact of the spirit, which completes a totally natural production process from start to finish. We also got to see some highly unusually ‘black and white’ coloured staves, which will eventually find their way into bespoke casks for one innovative distiller, as well as some Polish Oak (Quercus Polska anyone??) which is a lot harder and more resilient than American or traditional European wood.

But the undisputed highlight of the day was about to come, when Gary paused, smiled and asked if we wanted to see him set something on fire… to which we obviously replied “Hell Yeaaaaaaaaah!!” like slightly giggly school girls.

The following series of exciting photos only go a small way into showing just how brilliant (and dangerous) Gary’s demonstration of charring a brand new American oak cask was. The heat and sound of the process, coupled with the sweet, vanilla-caramel aroma in the air draws you right in and seeps into the pores. Wow. We’ll never look a hoggie in the same way again!



Massive thanks to Gary for taking the time out of his crazily busy day to entertain us – for those readers who are planning a trip to Dufftown, the Speyside Cooperage is an absolute ‘MUST SEE’ appointment on your visiting schedule, and a great insight into the wood that encases our beloved whiskies.

For more information on the Cooperage and their tours, visit:
www.speysidecooperage.co.uk