Barrels used for ageing alcohol are often the focus of attention when it comes to wine, beer and alcoholic beverages. Images of cellars and rickshaws full of barrels are highly visible on websites and in marketing materials, and many manufacturers emphasize the toast or bag they have chosen. However, the people who build and repair these iconic ships usually work behind the scenes.
More than 65% of the taste [of the whiskey] actually comes from the wood, says Ian McDonald, director of William Grant & Sons, where he manages the barrel inventory for The Balvenie and Glenfiddich.
McDonald’s and his colleagues from the spirit factory are responsible for repairing and rejuvenating (or recast) the heads and rods of the barrels. While the distillery covered the nuances of maturation in barrels with its wide range of whisky in rum, sherry and port casks, McDonald’s studied there in 1969, but this did not happen.
When I started here, it was more important to know what the barrel looked like cosmetically. The sewn sticks, the [polished] ends, the shiny hoops were a masterpiece, McDonald said. Nowadays, the way the whisky reacts with the tree is more important. The taste comes from the inside of the barrel, not the outside. It’s not his looks that count, it’s his reaction to the whisky.
When I see how the different types of whisky are refined in the shops, I am very proud to know that I was involved in making each bottle. -Ian MacDonald, William Grant and Sons. -Ian MacDonald, William Grant and Sons.
With the growing interest in how barrels add flavour and the willingness of beverage producers to invest in new herbs and new types of wood, the appeal of this ancient art becomes clear.
Coping is a rare art that is incredibly satisfying, McDonald says. The skills you possess are centuries old and the casks you repair really contribute to the maturation of the whisky. When I see different types of whisky in the shops, I am proud to have played a role in making each bottle.
Here you will find professional advice on how to become a Cooper, a career based on high technology, practical experience and tradition.
Roasted barrels in Balveni kondak / Photo courtesy of Balveni
You start with the lower.
Although there is no way to become a cooper, the type of cooper you are looking for will determine your first step. If you get a job in a barrel production plant, you are likely to start with a production line that may consist of cutting bars and cylinder heads that are sewn together or loaded onto trucks to be shipped to wineries or distilleries.
Barry Shewmaker, Bondage Manager at the Independent Stave Company (ISC) in Lebanon, Missouri, started his company 29 years ago with the production of entry-level drums. A few years later he took up a management position.
My path was mainly to stop or not to stop, I had a chance to fill the void, Shevmeiker said. At the elementary level it is about the willingness to adapt to learn different things. If you want to continue, for example by switching to quality control or becoming a manager, just think about the future.
Similarly, Heidi Korb’s father Russ launched Karash from the bottom up, explains Korb, who founded the Black Swan cooperative in Minnesota in 2009 with Brian Lee of Tuthilltown Spirits Park Rapids. He learned a lot about poultry houses by going around all the poultry houses in the United States and seeing what he could get out of them, she says. It’s like a walking encyclopedia of wood knowledge.
Korb had no formal education when she discovered the black swan after graduating from university at the age of 22. At that time she learned all the details of the trade with her father. I’ve moved a little in the barrels since kindergarten, so I didn’t start from scratch, she says.
Despite the fact that the cooperage has grown considerably compared to the original team of two men, father and daughter, it remains a relatively small company that mainly supplies distilleries. Black Swan produces approximately 5,000 barrels per year, compared to millions of SAIs. For this reason, employment is limited, although Korb says that turnover is quite high and there are still opportunities to get into production.
Making barrels isn’t easy, she says. But it’s not hard if you work smart. Anyone can do it. You have to make do with it, because to start with, nowadays almost all barrels, whether whisky barrels or wine casks, are made of white oak. And white oak is very heavy. They will lift drums weighing between 40 and over 100 pounds.
The Showman agrees. He adds that promising agents must remember that the way they are often portrayed – standing in the glowing flames and licking the barrel sticks – is not everything.
It seems that [co-op] is considered dangerous and smoky, and sawdust on the ground and all those things that make a very good picture, Shevmeyker said. After all, the reality is that we have invested in new equipment, and we are projecting ourselves around some of these more difficult positions.
Drums charred by Jack Daniels / photo Alvaro Galindo
Applying for an internship or traineeship
Much of McDonald’s work revolves around the restoration of broken and used drums, the so-called reels. He rejuvenates them by repairing leaks by hand so that they can age again.
McDonald says that in his experience it is very difficult to work together if you don’t have family ties or if you don’t know someone who already works in the industry. Historically, a career as a development worker required a one-year internship that combined practical training with a study of learning theory. This is still the case for some development workers.
When I was 15, I went to William Grant and Sons to see if there was a chance I could get an internship, McDonald said. I got the job and I’ve been here ever since.
William Grant & Sons continues to offer internships at his cooperatives in Dufftown and Girvan in Scotland, and there are similar opportunities at beverage companies such as Diageo and Brown-Forman.
Making drums is such a unique craft and there are so few drums in the United States and even in the world. It’s impossible to find someone with experience. -Heidi Korb, Black Swan Cooperage. -Heidi Korb, Black Swan Cooperage.
Internship and internship programmes are also available through cooperative exchanges working with new vessels, both large and small. Shewmaker helped with the introduction of the ISC Master Craftsman program, a fast-track program where you basically start when the logs are unloaded from the truck and you do each job in the mill for a few days or three days until you get a good idea of what each job does, he says. They work until the drums are loaded onto the truck.
Whether you are an apprentice or a beginner, how you get into the company also depends on the location and the question. Black Swan, for example, does not offer internships in his Minnesota condak.
Employees are hard to find anyway. So it would be almost scandalous to find someone who wants to make a career as a cooper, Korb says. Training is a job and it takes at least two years to learn as much as possible about the production of barrels.
Hand cylinder grinding in the Seguin Moreau cooperative in Napa, California / Photo courtesy of Segwin Moreau
Experience in woodworking is useful, the desire to learn is irreplaceable
Although a university degree or previous experience is not always necessary to get a foot in the door, certain skills will be useful. When hiring Shewmaker in Missouri, he pays special attention to people with welding or maintenance experience.
However, the best experience with cooperation is when employees start working immediately.
We have trained all our employees extensively, according to Korb. Making drums is such a unique craft and there are so few drums in the United States and even in the world. It’s impossible to find someone with experience.
However, she says that it is useful to have some knowledge of woodworking, because then they have an idea of how to use the equipment we have and the attention to detail.
There are many defects in wood that can cause production problems, says Korb. So if you get him now, you don’t have to deal with him three, four or seven times.
This industry is full of people who are willing to share their knowledge. Just be prepared to ask. -Darrell Davis, Jack Daniel Cooperage. -Darrell Davis, Jack Daniel Cooperage.
When McDonald started working for The Balvenie’s in-house cooperation at the age of 15, he had already gained some experience in wood and metal working at school. Technical and practical subjects at school have always been my favourite subjects, and the skills I’ve learned have been very useful throughout my career, he says.
However, many of the skills that are most useful for his career have been transferred from the former master craftsman. The willingness to listen and learn and the attention to detail really helped, he said.
Preparation of wooden sticks by Jack Daniels / Photo by Alvaro Galindo
Meet the experts.
Whether you’re working on an assembly line or doing an internship, Davis says it’s important to seize every opportunity for mentoring. You just have to learn from everyone and be willing to learn from everyone, says Davis, factory manager of the Jack Daniel cooperage, where he supervises 165 team members. This industry is full of people who are willing to share their knowledge. Just be prepared to ask.
Davis says it was essential to draw on the experience of those around him when he got his first job as brewery manager at Brown Forman seven years ago.
I’ve noticed that people like to share their experiences when they get the chance, says Davis, who used to work in the medical device industry and worked in his parents’ machine shop as a child. I have learned a lot from the sawmill and the cooperage, if only by paying attention to those who have been in the industry for a long time or at least longer than I have.
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