The Barrel-Maker

photos by Evelyn

“The cooper’s job is the most important part of the whisky industry.  Nae cooper, nae whisky”
Darren Morrison, Cooperage Foreman, Speyside Cooperage, Craigellachie, Scotland

A quick quiz

Q: What are the first three ingredients of whisky?
A: Malt, yeast, and water.

Q: What are the next three ingredients?
A: Distillation, condensation, and maturation.

Very simplistically, maturation is essentially two things: what the spirit is held in, and how long it is held in it for.

And it is maturation that is maybe the most critical stage of getting whisky from paddock to glass.

THE COOPER

`Let me introduce you to Mike Tawse.

Mike Tawse, Master Cooper

Mike is a cooper, a Master Cooper – a man who makes whisky barrels.

Mike is originally from the centre of Speyside in northern Scotland, near Aberlour, and is now the only Master Cooper in New Zealand.

He’s a tall man, strongly built (he looks like he can chuck barrels around – possibly full ones!), softly spoken, and younger than I was expecting.  He followed his father into coopering, completing a four-year workshop-based apprenticeship at Speyside Cooperage (the UK’s largest independent cooperage), located in Craigellachie.  After he completed his time, he spent another five years at the cooperage “doing casks for absolutely everyone”.

Mike and his partner were brought to NZ about 18 months ago by Matt and Celine Johns, the owners of Pokeno Whisky in north Waikato.

In Scotland, by regulation, whisky is matured in oak casks, but as Mike notes, “Matt had the idea of trying some native woods, because it made the spirit 100% New Zealand.  All the (Pokeno Whisky) ingredients come from here.  The only thing left was the cask and that’s basically what brought me over.”

Before he arrived in NZ, the country had not had a qualified practitioner for maybe 30 years.  And the last cooper was reputedly over 90 years old when he retired.

A BRIEF COOPERING HISTORY

Once upon a time each distillery in Scotland pretty much did its own cooperage.

In Britain, the emergence of centralised operations, such as Speyside Cooperage, resulted in the “contracting out” of cooperage services and the subsequent closure of distillery cooperages.

There is a lot of conjecture around the numbers of qualified coopers still working these days, but one thing is certain – a big drop in numbers has brought the trade into the “endangered species” range.

And, as a result, a lot of barrel-stuff may not be getting done.  When he left Speyside Cooperage around 2019 to work in a new cooperage operation, Mike estimates that only about 40% of barrels requiring repair were getting serviced at that stage– the new business “bumped that up” to around 50%, but there are still a lot of casks that sit and don’t get touched.

THE BARRELS

When you go into Mike’s domain at Pokeno Whisky, one of the first things that strikes you is tidiness and order.  Photos and videos from other cooperages have random piles of wood and metal hoops strewn about with seeming gay abandon, narrow cluttered alleyways, in a wet and steamy workshop.

Mike’s workshop is, by comparison, clinically clean and tidy.  The floor is clean, swept concrete and the only piece indicating a working cooperage is a small amount of wood dust and shavings around a barrel that is obviously under construction or repair.

At the back wall is a palette holding a neat pile of timber, each piece about a metre long by 30 mm square, each row stacked tidily crosswise to the row below.

The timber Is swamp kauri.  Mike says, “It was from a local guy who came in and offered us it. He pulled it out of the swamp about 30 years ago.”

I wonder if the fact that the kauri has been swamp-marinating for a long time would made a difference in how it behaved as a barrel timber.

“It could be.”, says Mike.  “It sat for a long time drying as well.  It’s been pulled out, milled, and held in storage.   He wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

After trialling the kauri, Mike made a cask from it.

“It was sort of tracking in the right direction so we thought we’ll try a full cask – a 200-litre one.”  At this stage now, the distillery is waiting to see how it evolves.

“Back home it was just oak. Here you get a chance to work with different material.  It helps to develop your skill as well, knowing how different timbers react.”

As a part of experimenting with NZ native woods, Mike and Pokeno have also done trials with manuka.  However, they discovered that the oils in manuka made the timber too over-powering for whisky maturation.

The Totara Casks
Guess what’s in here

Once the first totara cask barrels were emptied of the whisky, they were refilled – but this time with new spirit.  Mike comments that “we’re trialling it as it goes but, because the spirit is still so young, you’re not getting the taste through yet.”  Pokeno didn’t want to leave the totara casks for a full maturation first time round, as it would be too overpowering.

I express high interest in tasting what the first totara-only maturation will be like.

“It’s the same with us”, agrees Mike.  “We tasted it after the first six months.  It’s new spirit that’s in there and it hasn’t started doing the transition yet.  I mean, very subtle hints of the transition.  We’ll probably try it every six months.”

The totara barrels were not re-charred after the first empty, they were second-filled with the new spirit.

Mike explains that using the casks was “only a finish for the first one.  We’ve not drawn everything out of the casks yet.  It’s more when the cask stops maturing that you’ll rejuvenate the inside.  We might refill it three or four times before they start deteriorating.”

When I asked if making casks of different woods was exciting, Mike said “Back home it was just oak. Even if you were building a new cask, it was just oak.  Here you get a chance to work with different material.  It helps to develop your skill as well, knowing how different timbers react.”

Mike says that the world reaction to the Totara Cask whisky has been very rewarding.  “Not only does it help the brand, but the whisky industry in itself – something new.  Everyone in Scotland – it’s not affecting them, and it gives them something different to try.”

“We’ve not actually tried any more native timbers.  We’ve been looking at doing puriri, but we’ve not done anything with it yet.  It’s just been an idea.”

MAKING THE BARREL
Pokeno Whisky Display Barrel

To the uninitiated, making a barrel is a major!  To the professional it’s maybe a bit easier, but I doubt it.

Mike tells me, “Basically, when I get the wood I’m looking for it to be quarter-sawn, dried down to about 12% moisture.

“I get it just as a rectangular piece of wood, I put six different angles on each individual stave – from the middle to the quarter it’s tapered in, then from the quarter to the end is also tapered in, thus giving you two and then you’ve got to duplicate that on the other side, and then on the front and back of the staves are curved as well to help with the curvature.”

I hope you followed that.  I didn’t!  Even thinking about it now starts a headache.

Mike continues.  “I’ve got my table planer that I work on”, indicating a largish planning machine in the corner of the workshop.  Some samples of timber are near the planer.  “That was New Zealand oak that we were trying working on, but it wasn’t successful.

“We don’t know if it was the correct heart of the tree: that’s what we would look for, as opposed to the sapwood.  This was the same person that supplied us with the totara – “I’ve got oak sitting if you want to try it”.  But it was all milled into boards already and we didn’t know what part of the tree it was.”

THE CRYSTAL BALL

When I ask if he is intending to stay in NZ now, Mike replys “I’ve not really discussed future plans yet.  When I came over I was contracted for two years, but I’ve not made any plans to go home yet.”

I ask if there is opportunity for Mike to train people in New Zealand, starting his own apprentices here.

He replies “We are hoping that we can get to that point, but it will just wait until I’m too busy to do it myself.  We’re hopeful – like, we’ve a few enquiries.  It’s like a waiting game

“With all the distillery services that are opening up, we’re just working our way.  There’s room to grow, and we can grow when they grow – that’s fine.  We’ve done a couple of wine casks for some of the wineries as well.  I mean, a lot of it will come down to when word gets around – once we start doing a couple of jobs for wineries it gets the name out there.”

Mike is also taking the opportunity to learn the whisky production business – and he is a very good learner: he took us for a walk around the distillery, rattling off a huge array of vat and production volumes and timings that made my head spin!

He is in the distillery one day a week “just to keep my skills up in that side of it.  All my training has been done here, I’ve never worked in a distillery up until I came here.  I think because Matt has had 25 years in the whisky industry, it’s like everything we’re doing is going to work almost.”

The aroma is fantastic!

Footnote: the entire distillery is as beautifully neat, clean and tidy as Mike’s workshop – obviously a trait of the distillery.

A PX cask at rest
rabbit holes

When you start looking at barrel-making, there’s an almost endless but delightful set of rabbit holes to wander down.

Here’s just a couple you might enjoy – the first is the skilled, manual way to make barrels by hand.  The presenter is rather taciturn, but amazing to watch – although I think that Health and Safety will have some concerns!

The second – the modern, mechanised way of barrel-making – may explain why coopering as a trade is threatened.  Rather more machine operators than coopers?

Slainte
John

 

Dramfest 2023 Review – Chapter 1

Event Overview

A very happy, well-oiled crowd.

That was Dramfest 2023, New Zealand’s largest whisky event.

NZ whisky enthusiasts have been waiting for three years to get back to Dramfest.  The last festival, in 2020, took place on the weekend before NZ’s first Covid lock-down, when Dave Broom got “kept in” in NZ and had to receive care packages of whisky to keep him going!.

And then came Dramfest 2022.  Sort of.

We had all our entry tickets sorted.  Airfares and beds were booked, and we were eagerly awaiting the exciting range of Dramfest Sessions to come up for grabs.

Then, just as the starting gun was about to fire, the rug was brutally snatched from under our collective feet by yet another bloody lock-down!

It all seemed a diabolical plot, like someone telling a 5-year-old that Santa Claus doesn’t exist!

Patience gets its Reward, though: Dramfest 2023 (2022.5?).  And it has been well worth waiting for!

Putting whisky aside for a moment (just a moment), what a magnificent venue Christchurch’s new Te Pae Convention Centre is.

The Te Pai Convention Centre

And the Whisky Galore team added a mouth-watering 68 stands, with over 70 brands of whisky and rum on offer this year.  Happiness and smiles all around.

My very rough count of this year’s assembly was 324 drams available to sample, plus those at the Sessions and a few “under the table” ones that I missed in the reckoning.

Dramfest 30 minutes BC (Before Customers)

My Dramfest Highlights (View from the Chair)

Travelling in Style

Compared with previous Dramfests, my intake of alcohol at this year’s event was minute.  Maybe something to do with drink-driving.

Instead of tasting everything available, I took the opportunity to spend my time introducing myself to the owners of New Zealand distilleries.  I had previously met quite a few of them by email or telephone but not in person.  It was great to meet them, introduce myself and shake a hand or two.

I was delighted to get a warm welcome from everyone I spoke with.  As a result, I am looking forward to being able to provide this Blog with many more articles on NZ distilleries and the local whisky scene.

I did weaken a bit during the tripping around and took the chance to test-drive a few NZ-produced drams.  Here are my views:

Lammermore Distillery, The Jack Scott Single Malt, 46%

Nose: Sweet and floral.  A slight tinge of sweaty shearing shed.
Palette: Tongue bite at first, but that drops away quickly.  Young and plenty of alcohol heat, vinous from the Pinot Noir barrels.
Finish: The tongue sting stays.  The taste sours at the end (again, the influence of the pinot noir barrel?), but then again so do a lot of whiskies.
Score: 8.1

Cardrona whisky Pinot Noir, 52% ABV

Nose: Vanilla custard with dried stone fruit.  The pinot noir barrel gives the expected vinous note.
Palette: Sharp, and not too alcohol hot.  Under the sharpness the whisky is smooth and even, with pip fruit on the tongue.
Finish: A heat stays on the tongue, roof and walls of the mouth.  The vanilla custard note remains.
Comment:  This is the second iteration of Cardrona to be matured in pinot casks.  We reviewed the first “Just Hatched” Pinot Noir-matured whisky is Dec 2019.  This second one is way better.  I have tried this before Dramfest, and I was just as impressed then.
Score: 8.7

Waiheke Whisky, Peat and Port, 46%, 5-yrear-old, 40ppm peat.  Dramfest bottling.

Nose: Marine, like rock pools.  Citrus peel with vanilla
Palette: Rich and sweet.  Slightly “sheepy”, but not in a bad way.
Finish: The sweetness stays.
Comment: This is capital N Nice!  Actually, a whole lot better than nice.
Further comment:  Although the 40ppm of phenols is accurate, if you are expecting this to be like one of Islay’s more heathen expressions you will be disappointed.  In all the New Zealand peated whiskies I have tasted from Waiheke Whisky the peat notes are there, but they are way more subtle than Scottish peated drams – with Waiheke whiskies I really have had to look to find to find them.
Score: 7.9

And then I spent Sunday working on the Black Tot Rum stand.  For an ardent (and sober) people watcher, manning the stand is so much fun.

Graeme’s Dramfest Sessions

Email traffic in Wellington prior to Dramfest, getting tickets to the sessions was a bit of a  keyboard lottery.  Some punters won Powerball, others were left bemoaning their poor fortune.

Graeme got particularly lucky.  He scored entry both the Arran and the Glen Scotia mini sessions.  He then followed that streak by getting into Sunday’s Top Shelf session, led by Dave Broom and Michael Fraser Milne.

Graeme has kindly provided his tasting notes from those events.

The Arran mini-session

Arran 17yo rare batch Calvados cask 52.5% ABV.

Matured for full 17 years in second fill casks previously used to mature Calvados.

Nose and palette: Both apples and pears dominate, spiciness.
Finish: Medium-long with flavour persisting.
Score: 8.5

Lagg release one ex-bourbon  50% ABV. 

Matured in bourbon cask, peating at 50 ppm.

Nose: light peat.
Palette: more pronounced peat, otherwise undistinguished.
Finish: long, peat dominant.
Comment: In no way measures up to the Arran Fingal’s Cut tasted at last Dramfest.
Score:  6.5

The Glen Scotia mini –session

Glen Scotia 25yo, refill ex-bourbon casks, but finished in first fill ex-bourbon.  48.8% ABV 

Nose:  Standard vanilla.
Palette:  Chocolate, vanilla, sweetness.
Finish:  Medium-long with flavour lasting well.
Comment:  This won whisky of the year at the 2021 San Francisco spirits forum.
Score: 8.5

Glen Scotia 9yo first fill ex-bourbon  Cask no 9.  56.7% ABV

Distilled 2013.  Specially selected for Dramfest, six  bottles only taken straight from the cask still sitting in the warehouse.

Nose:  Standard vanilla.
Palette:  Oily, salty, fruity.
Finish:  Long flavour persistence.
Comment:  Watch out for the release of this one.
Score:  9.0

The Top Shelf

The theme of the Top Shelf tasting was reviewing the traditions of whisky-making.

Daftmill 15yo first fill American oak  55.7% ABV cask strength

A Lowlands distiller, Daftmill is from the traditional farmer distiller, making whisky in his spare time from on-farm materials.

Nose:  Oaky, vanilla, spice.  Palette: buttery, mouth-filling, well integrated flavours.
Finish:  Everlasting flavour.  So long that it was necessary to drink some water before moving on to the next whisky!
Score: 9.8

Glenturret 30yo matured in ex-sherry cask  42% ABV. 

One of 750 bottles from this Highlands distillery.

Nose:  Sherry, spice, geranium (the last Dave Broom’s comment).
Palette:  Soft, floral, sherry, dark fruit and dates.
Finish:  Long and subtle flavours (but not as long as the Daftmill).
Comment: A light whisky, well-integrated and soft.
Score:  9.0

Springbank 22yo from Adelphi, 46.3% ABV.

One of 239 bottles.  Easily the oldest Springbank anywhere in Dramfest.

Nose:  Sherry, new-made bread.
Palette:  Sherry, low-level peat evident.
Finish: Medium-long, fades more rapidly than first two.
Comment: Slightly disappointing after the first two.
Score: 8.0

Caol Ila 40 yo Director’s Special bottled by Whisky Exchange. 49.1% ABV.

Nose:  Fruity, grapefruit, very light peat in the background.
Palette:  Fruit, salty, peat remain light and in the background.
Finish: Long, with lasting flavours, peat finally becoming more evident but beautifully integrated.
Comment:  the bottler loves tropical fruit whiskies.
Score:  9.5

Overall Tasting Comment: Fully lived up to very high expectations.

A Closer Look at New Zealand Distilleries – Kiwi Spirit Distillery, Takaka

In my last post  I looked at the disturbances that the last 18 months is likely to have on NZ whisky stocks. As a part of that discussion, I considered there was a great opportunity for New Zealand distilleries to fill probable gaps in the supply line. This article on Waitui Whiskey is the first of a proposed series focussing on local NZ distilleries and whiskies. Who are the distilleries?  What are they doing?  And what is the product like? There is only one way to find out.  Talk to them, sample their wares and report back.   I will look at some of their production details and at the whiskies they are producing.  Then I will give you my tasting notes and opinion on the results. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it!

Kiwi Spirit Distillery

The first distillery is the Kiwi Spirit Distillery in Takaka in the very beautiful Golden Bay at the top of the South Island. The company is a family owned and operated distillery, specialising in unique spirits handcrafted from homegrown ingredients. Almost all Kiwi Spirit Distillery’s ingredients come from the local region.   The water is drawn from one of the aquifers that feed Te Waikoropupū Springs (the Pupu Springs) just out of Takaka.  The malt is from the South Island, but Kiwi Spirits is looking to get their supply more locally. The distillery produces a wide range of spirits – Tequila, two gins (Championz and Greenstone), three liqueurs, Honey Mead (of which more later), and two vodkas.

If you put the cork back in and leave it for 24 hours to absorb the little bit of extra air that has been allowed into the bottle, you get a whole different experience!

But the focus of our interest is, or course, Waitui Whiskey. Waitui Whiskey is a unique New Zealand single malt that commenced production in 2002.  The small batch output is one of only a few true honey malt whiskeys produced in the world today. With no malt blends or other additives, the whisky spends eight years maturing in 200 litre barrels previously housing manuka honey mead. The current production levels are in the process of being increased to 2000 litres, thanks to some new equipment on its way.  The refining still is a very lovely looking Arnold Holstein unit, with a large ogee to encourage reflux and a level Lyne arm.

Arnold Holstein Still
The Product

I purchased a bottle of Waitui Honey Mead matured whiskey to try.  Although not as expensive as some other NZ drams, it did push my purchase tipping point a bit. The bottle details are:

Waitui Single Malt Manuka Honey.  Natural Colour, Manuka Honey Mead Oak Casks.  Distilled 17 Mar 2012, bottled 2 June 2020, bottle 68 from cask 91.

Waitui Honey Mead Whiskey
An interesting point …

Sometimes when you open a new bottle of whisky the first dram is not as good as it is going to get.  Put the cork back in and leave it for 24 hours to absorb the little bit of extra air that has been allowed into the bottle and you get a whole different experience! So let it be with Waitui Honey Mead Whiskey. My first dram was a bit underwhelming. The colour was a lovely dark mahogany.  But, against that, my tasting notes show a slightly sour nose, with honey and a sugar sack.  The palette was not as sweet as I would have hoped either, and I felt it could have benefited from being bottled at a slightly higher abv – maybe around 46%.  I scored that first dram at 7.4, a mark that I was a bit disappointed with. I put the cork back in, hoping that things would improve with the benefit of a bit of increased air in the mix.

Fast forward 24 hours and we have a whole new ball game!

Nose: Mixed fruit with spice for a fruitcake.  There is a slight metallic/coppery note in the background, cinnamon & dark chocolate with honey, wood and old varnish. Palette: A lot of sweetness, tongue heat and a slight fizz.  Mouth-filling (despite the lower abv), metallic again but at a very low level, Madeira fruit cake and cinnamon. Finish: Way longer than the previous evening.  A very lovely oily residue, with no drying tannic notes. Comment: An exceedingly attractive dram indeed.  The added air in the bottle has made a tremendous difference and created a whole new whisky!  I doubt that one bottle is going to be enough! Score: 8.5 Summary:  Kiwi Spirit Distillery and Waitui Honey Mead Whiskey is the second direct contact I have had with a New Zealand distillery and its product. Over the years there have been some fairly dire NZ whiskies unleashed on our citizenry, but if this Waitui dram is where NZ whiskies are headed our outlook for local whiskies is going to be brilliant! I think that NZ whiskies will very capably hold their head up in any marketplace, and I am greatly looking forward to our future. Slainte FootnoteThis article has not been sponsored by Waitui in any way – the opinions and views expressed are entirely my own.  However, I would like to acknowledge the support and assistance provided to me by the staff at the distillery who have been most generous with their time and information, and happy to answer some quite nosey questions. John