The water of life, the spirit of Scotland

January 23, 2013

Craigellachie, Scotland

By David Moir

Scotch whisky is big business. With sales well over 5 billion pounds per year it’s an industry that has gripped the growing middle classes around the world. Including in countries where sales previously struggled and with drinks industry companies eager to quench that thirst with huge modern computer run distilleries being built around the globe producing more and more of the liquid.
But one thing still remains true in its production, oak casks.

Whisky isn’t Scotch Whisky unless it has been distilled in Scotland and matured for a minimum of three years in an oak cask which comes in various capacities from a Pin to a Butt. ‘Cooper’s’ are the tradesmen who build and repair the oak casks and barrels, their skills passed down from generations show no signs of entering the hi-tech world. They use tools such as a dowelling stock, flagging iron, inside shave and a hollowing knife to name a few.

I visited the Speyside Cooperage which started as a family business in 1947, in the small village of Craigellachie in northern Scotland, or the Malt Whisky Trail as it is also lovingly known. There they repair and build up to 150,000 oak casks a year, with each ‘cooper’ still being paid per cask, working on 20-30 per day like it always has been. The hardest workers can earn up to 60,000 pounds.

It’s a very, very busy working environment, there is no room for small talk or lazing about. ‘Cooper’s’ earn their crust from the moment they roll a cask to workspace, begin taking it apart, hammering the lid, metal hoops and inspecting the wooden staves, making any repairs and then putting it back together again. It’s pretty much “perpetual motion”, a phrase used by Andrew Russell, the general manager of the cooperage.

Outside the cooperage main building are rows and rows (or stow’s) of oak casks and barrels delivered from around the world. Stacked high up in the air with the different distillery names stamped on their lids, it’s a formidable sight.

There’s a whole section of bourbon barrels from the U.S. with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam to name just two, sherry and port barrels from Spain and South America – it’s like a holiday brochure of countries you would like to visit and shows how a local company in the north of Scotland with its loyal tradesmen and hardwork ethics are still making a hugely important impact on the global market.

From the water in the hills, to the copper still in a distillery, to the oak cask for up to fifty years, poured into a glass then finally to the mouth for the taste sensations to start – it’s perpetual motion and I couldn’t put it any better myself.


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