It always amazes me that whisky industry folk hang around in their roles for years, not at a corporate level but at the distillery and production level.
At the Clyde Cooperage for example, Michael has served 43 years as a cooper, Stevie 35 years and the youngest and ‘junior’ has served 17 years and is still considered an apprentice. Incredible.
Years ago there were around 1,500 – 2,000 coopers in Scotland, with the craft passed down generations, but nowadays there are about 150, most of whom work four days a week earning around £60,000 – £80,000 per year with a generous whisky corporate discount.
Sounds good eh? Yes, but wow do they work for every penny of it.
The cooperage itself is a 50/50 joint venture with Diageo, which is interesting in itself and handles casks for brands such as The Macallan, The Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and others.
All the casks are shipped whole, effectively transporting air, from Spain having spent eighteen months to two years being seasoned with Olorosso sherry. This is more expensive to do than flat packing but ensures efficiency of getting casks filled wth spirit.
So what does a cooper do?
At the Clyde Cooperage they don’t make casks, they solely repair them, looking for broken staves, potential leaks and pourous wood that absorbs spirit and can be detrimental to the end flavour.
They also convert casks into different sizes and handle mostly sherry casks.
Each cooper is paid by the cask on a points system depending on the size of cask and what repairs are needed.
They still use the same tools that have been used in the industry for centuries, with each cooper having their own set that gradually erode and take the shape of their hands over the years. This is an incredibly manual and hard job.
Because of the nature of the job, it is not uncommon for coopers to develop tennis elbow, neck and back problems, not many have all ten fingers either!
It is very rare for coopers to leave their jobs voluntarily, the people, the lifestyle, the benefits all make for a compelling place to stay, not to mention the banter which is both amusing and cutting, as I witnessed first hand.