Coopering: The art of making whisky casks
Coopering is an age-old practice of making whisky casks. It requires so much skill that many consider it an art. While casks are not made by hand any more, it still takes years of training, skill and expertise for a cooper to create casks befitting international standards.
Finding the right oak
It starts with finding an oak that has reached the perfect shape and size. The trees chosen need to be straight and free of knots. They also need to reach a defined height (25 feet) and diameter (3 feet), and only then is it considered sufficiently ready.
Shaping the staves
The oak is then cut up into planks known as ‘staves’. The staves have a curved surface, which when joined together form the unique shape of the barrel. Each barrel has 32-33 staves. The staves pass through a planer, which shapes them into the desired dimensions.
Making the barrelheads
To make the barrelheads the staves are passed first through a machine that punches holes on their sides. Pins are knocked into them to hold the staves together. Once the staves have been fitted up, they pass through a rounder where the barrelheads get shaped. These barrelheads are then passed through fire and rolled in beeswax to seal them into the barrels.
Assembling the barrel
The individual staves are assembled inside an iron hoop and tied together gently. The barrel is then steamed to make the wooden staves more malleable. After steaming they affix iron hoops to hold it all together.
Firing the barrels
This is a very crucial step, as the charred wood lends a lot of flavour to the whisky. After the process of firing is over, water is poured into the barrels to cool them down, and they are sealed with the barrelheads. A small hole is drilled in, and closed with a stopper.
Finishing and examining the barrels
The iron hoops holding the barrel together are replaced with sturdier ones. The assembled barrels are sent for inspection where they are thoroughly checked for leaks. Once everything is okay, the stopper is released. The water inside, which by now would have turned into steam, gushes out.
Onwards to the distillery
These inspected barrels are sent to the distillery where they await their generous share of whisky.