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Whisky Jobs… Gary Taylor on being a Cooper

Whisky Jobs… Gary Taylor on being a Cooper

As a cooper at Speyside Cooperage, it’s Gary Taylor’s job to check, repair and re-finish casks of all descriptions, providing distillers with the essential component to mature their alcohol spirit into fine, quality whisky. We asked him to tell us more about the day-to-day and what qualities are required to succeed in the role…

On an average day in the cooperage, the cooper will take a cask to their bench where they will wire brush it, looking for any broken staves, buckled heads, rusty hoops or any other defect that would render the cask unfit for purpose. This being done, they will open the cask by removing the hoops standing it up, then replace and renew as required with wood from a similar type of cask so that the flavours within the cask are unchanged. The cask is then closed up again and the fit and finish are done with tools that have essentially remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The heads are replaced and then a reed is caulked into the croze to form a seal between the staves and head. Finally, the cask is driven tight and then tested for any leaks along with a final check for defects.

This process is then repeated by the cooper who, on average, will complete this between 15 and 20 times a day depending on the types of cask! These range typically from a 40 gallon bourbon barrel up to a 112 gallon sherry butt and all manner of sizes in between.

Over the last 42 years that I’ve purveyed my craft as a cooper, there has been very few changes in the job skillset of a cooper or in the cooperage itself. Indeed, it’s still one of very few indentured apprenticeships left these days. We have seen the introduction of heavy machines that will do the final driving of the cask, electric planers and saws but – and it is a big but – the tools that the cooper uses to shape, fit, finish and work on the cask are unchanged over many hundreds of years.

I was born in an age where we played outside, messed about in sheds and woods making all manner of things. It was unsurprising that I wanted to work with my hands. I visited Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie one day in July 1978 asking if there were any jobs. The reply; “Monday at 8am if your late don’t bother!

So, in August 1978 just after trades fortnight I started as an apprentice cooper. My young eyes were rudely awoken to a world of hard men who spoke straight, worked and played hard and who wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. But, strangely, I felt right at home.

Unfortunately, in 1980 there was a huge depression within the whisky industry and my apprenticeship was transferred to Macduff distillery where I stayed for six years before returning to Speyside Cooperage. Here I am all these years later still going, still chapping barrels, and still enjoying my craft. The bones and muscles ache that bit more and often I drop into a seat tired, dirty and sore at the end of the day, but to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It is a very physical and manual job and in this current era of push button electronics and computers, it does not hold much attraction for many a man these days. It is good old fashioned “hard graft”. You need to be fit, strong but with a delicate touch, an appreciative mind to understand how the wood works and as such how a cask works to magically mature the rough alcohol into smooth mellow whisky along with the effect of different oaks which can have drastic influence on the colour and flavour.

You need a dogged determination to repeat this daily from 7am to 5pm, 5 days a week, with each cask receiving the same attention to detail. You will go home black from the charcoal, dirty from the dust, there will be cuts and chafes to your hands and every muscle will ache. But there is a satisfaction in doing the work. A pride in being one of the few… A COOPER.

If anyone reads this and feels that it sounds like a calling that they want to follow, then read again the attributes of a cooper, for there’s nowhere to hide! There’s a four year apprenticeship, you need to respect your journey and work hard. You need to be fit with a good eye, a steady hand and a stout heart. If you still want to follow in the footsteps of those before you. Then you will be rewarded with skills and a craft and a pride in yourself as a cooper.


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