Magazine article Management Today

MT People: The Sharp End - Rolling out the Barrels

Magazine article Management Today

MT People: The Sharp End - Rolling out the Barrels

Article excerpt

At a Scots distillery, Dave 'the Stave' Waller jumps through hoops to learn to be a cooper.

I'm off to Scotland, and Diageo's Cambus distillery, to try my hand at being a cooper. As I'm not your natural handyman, it's sure to be a barrel of laughs. Albeit one with huge leaks in it.

A barrel is, of course, merely one size of cask. I learn this as we drive into the 400-acre site, beneath the snowy Ochil Hills of Clackmannanshire, dormant casks lining the road like tyres at a racetrack. We pass row after row of massive warehouses, where three million casks of Johnnie Walker, Bell's and J&B Rare sit maturing for up to 18 years. Yes, I have finally found it: the drive-through booze cabinet.

The liver recoils at the prospect, but the modern whisky trade demands such scale. For producers, whisky is the glass that never empties - far-flung nations like Japan are considered mature markets now, and demand is soaring in Latin America and China. And it's still all about character: by law, scotch whisky has to be aged in oak, so this remains a handmade game. You can't just fall back on injection moulding. That may warm the soul in this age of mass-produced uniformity, but someone still has to make all those casks.

In fact, the 40 coopers here have to roll out 250,000 of them a year. No wonder the place has been set up like a car plant. It's a long production line of shiny steel, hanging hooks and giant robotic arms sweeping casks up and into the path of industrial flame. But it still has that human touch: muscular blokes kick around in leather aprons, beating metal with huge hammers. It looks like Thor and his mates having a day out in a Ford factory. The technology may have moved on, but the clanging noises and smell of sweet distillation and burnt oak won't have changed since the 17th century, when canny Scots hid their booze in wooden casks to fox the taxman.

The longest-serving cooper here is Billy Dawson. He has been at it 43 years. His colleague, John Carberry, tells me how his own grandfather was a cooper, as is his uncle and his cousin and, if all goes to plan, his son too. John explains how the casks arrive in flat pack, having been previously used in the US to store bourbon. It's like an alcoholic Ikea. …

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