Whisky Magazine Issue 42
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Ian Wisniewski looks at the role of the cooper and assesses what future the profession has
Oak management has become a mantra in the industry, reflecting the fact that between 40-70 per cent of a malt's flavour is derived from the cask. But the people who help to ensure that casks give of their best, the coopers, rarely get a mention.
The profession divides up into production, bond and service coopers. Generally based at distilleries and commercial cooperages, production coopers are ‘all-rounders,' providing a comprehensive range of services such as repairing and rejuvenating casks, reassembling staves, enlarging barrels into hogsheads, and fitting new barrel heads and ends.
Bond coopers are typically based at bonded warehouses, checking for leaks and covering basic repairs on casks (not necessarily empty at the time).
Service coopers have similar responsibilities, based at bonded warehouses or cooperages, while also undertaking repairs such as fitting new
barrel heads and ends.
According to The National Cooperage Federation, the number of coopers and apprentices has declined from a peak of 623 coopers in 1990 (admittedly an unusually strong year) to 229 coopers in 2003. This latest total divides into 45 service coopers, 15 bond coopers, 17 foremen and 145 production coopers (with 62 production coopers employed by commercial cooperages).
A key factor is that over the past four years the level of dumpings (ie. whisky emptied from casks) has exceeded production, while new fillings continue to use casks already in the system.
Meanwhile, increased mechanisation...