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 2 – The Adventures of Pat

Over the weekend of 4th and 5th of March I got to go to New Zealand’s premier whisky event, Dramfest.

Before I went, my wife told me to treat this like an adventure – very good advice, as you will see.

Saturday morning flight to Christchurch and off to the Te Pai Convention Centre at 12:30 to be meet a queue of other Whisky addicts.  Te Pai has plenty of space and the show was well laid out on one level (t as the afternoon went on, that was good as everybody became relaxed in various degrees of inattention).

After a lovely bagpipe intro, the stands were allowed to pour.

The Show

This year I decided to forgo the master classes and instead just do the stands. At previous Dramfests I have gone to every master class available; this time I wanted to spend more time just mingling.

On Saturday I managed to try about forty drams, the majority cask strength (the Wellington Curse).

Saturday picks

My pick for the day – and indeed as one of the stand outs for Dramfest – was the Cotswolds Founders Choice at a hefty 60.5% ABV.  My notes record just the word “Wow” under Nose, with the same recorded in Taste.  I don’t usually limit myself to a few words, but this was fantastic.

Cotswalds Founders’ Choice

The next memorable stand was the Alistair Walker Whisky Company. They had two drams that stood out: the Infrequent Flyers Benriach at 57.2% and the Glenrothes at 62.8%.  I feel the Benriach nudged ahead and indeed shares my first equal as the best dram of the weekend with the Founders Choice.

Infrequent Flyers Benriach

The impact of 40 high-strength whiskies during Saturday afternoon created a few internal GPS issues.

 A surprising Saturday find for me was the Sagamore Spirit stand.  Sagamore make Rye whiskey, and I like Rye whiskey.  Two drams on the stand stood out, mainly by not having that minty taste you sometimes get with Rye.  I found one not listed in the menu but that had a very much a Wow moment – the Sherry Finish Rye finished in PX sherry barrels at 52%.  It came at you in two layers on the taste, and I hope Whisky Galore gets more in!

Sagamore Rye – Sherry Finish

The Adventure – aka Pat’s Magical Mystery Tour

The Te Pai venue is 200 metres in a straight-ish line from our hotel – a short walk.  However, the impact of 40 high-strength whiskies during Saturday afternoon created a few internal GPS issues, and getting to the hotel became a much greater challenge than anticipated.

I had walked four blocks past my hotel before I encountered another Dramfest attendee.

“Pat, you’ve gone too far.  You need to turn around and go back into town.”

So I went back three blocks, then sat down thinking “This is hard work!”

There followed a text conversation with my wife (who was waiting with deteriorating patience in the hotel lobby) – refer photos below.  My part in the conversation was rather confused, and my wife was not amused in the slightest.  I walked  the last block and saw a large neon sign identifying the hotel.  Bliss.

Screen Print 1 – Blue messages are from Mrs Pat.

For clarity, the phrase “No funding idwa” contains typing errors.

Screen Print 2
Screen Print 3

Sunday

I started the Sunday session with the Kavalan 58.6% Port finish.  It is amazing, and surprisingly better than their Sherry finish.

The New Zealanders

I was taken aback with delight by the New Zealand offerings at Dramfest, and my Sunday tour of various NZ distillers’ stands revealed some new delights.

I visited the stand of Christchurch’s own Spirits Workshop, with their 5-year-old Divergence 5 and the new bottling of the Portwood in tawny casks.

Next was the Pokeno Whisky stand.  The Origin was a lovely smooth dram, but the pick was the Prohibition Porter from a first fill bourbon single cask – dark chocolate all the way and very smooth indeed.  I had to leave the stand; staying was far too far too tempting.

Then on to Waiheke Whisky.   I had sort of written Waiheke off a few months back after tasting some of their sample minis.  After tasting their offerings at Dramfest, I admit I definitely was wrong.  They gave me the Dramfest special bottling at 46%.  There is amazing mouth feel and, typical of NZ peat, just a hint of sea, smooth with a long finish.

I was then given a dram called Cantankerous which they said was for a cantankerous person.  Moi???  Again, this dram was not on the menu.  It is excellent and well worth finding – if you can.

Going home

No worries getting back to the hotel this time.

It is always a pleasure to go to a world class event here in NZ and, as usual, the team at Whisky Galore have done an superb job in a great venue.

 

Silly Statistics

Because we were interested (and a little bit bored) we analysed some of the numbers in the Dramfest catalogue.  They make for quite interesting reading.

The total price of all bottle in the catalogue:  $34,320.76

The average prince: $138.39

The highest orice: the Glenfiddich “Grand Cru” 23yo 40% $592.00
Second: the Buffalo Trace Stagg JR 64.2% $401.00
Third: The Whisky Cellar  Cambus Single Grain33yo 52.5% $386.00

On the (probably slightly under attended) Black Tot rum stand on Sunday, we used three bottles of each of the two drams we had.  Assuming the same level of consumption for all the other stands over the two days, that is $205,900 worth of whisky consumed!

And that wildly undependable calculation:
– undoubtedly understates the number of bottles used on many of the stands,
– does not include the values of the “under the counter” bottles, or
– the value of merchandise sales from the front shop.