A Cooper is a maker or repairer of casks and barrels.
Coopering as a craft can be traced back thousands of years. According to the 1st Century AD Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the ancient craft of the cooper was invented by the inhabitants of the Alpine valleys.
Traditionally, coopers would have made containers for both dry and wet goods. Wet coopers made barrels to contain liquids such as beers, wines, cider, and whisky. Dry coopers made those for flour, grains, fruit and vegetables, and much more.
Coopers bring together strong 'staves' of wood to make the boards, seal them together with hoops, smooth the inside, make lids and more, all without glue and highly accurate. It takes several hours to make a cask from start to finish, and is a craft that can take decades to master.
In Scotland, coopers are still employed in the making and maintaining of the all-important casks for Scotch Whisky.
As the casks for Scotch Whisky need to be stored for a minimum of three years – but are often stored for far longer – the making of a cask by a cooper is a crucial step in the whisky journey. Casks need to be wind and watertight, while still letting the whisky breath. Oak is thought to improve the flavour of the end product, and casks previously used to store sherry, port or bourbon can be used, as they add different flavours to the whisky.
Many Scottish Whisky companies have their own on site coopers.
The Balvenie say on their website that “The casks are so important to the taste of The Balvenie that we entrust their preparation and maintenance only to our on-site craftsmen. Our seven current coopers average twenty years’ service and the skills are passed by hand through the generations.”
Loch Lomond Distillery retain their own highly skilled coopers who continue to practice the age old trade on-site.
Watch an interview on the BBC website with Alastair Simms, who is thought to be England's last remaining Master Cooper. (According to the HCA website, Alistair has since had over 1000 applications for apprenticeships.)
Watch a video on Whisky Production from the Scotch Whisky Association to see the casks in action.
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