|Craigellachie village above the River Spey|
|Telford's Craigellachie Bridge and the Craig Ellachie cliff|
|Craigellachie Bridge approach road from north, cut into the cliff face|
|Old and new Craigellachie Bridges over the River Spey|
|Confluence of the River Fiddich and River Spey|
|New Craigellachie Bridge over River Spey rapids at the Heathery Isle|
|Overgrown remains of the Craigellachie railway viaduct (north side)|
|Platform from old Strathspey Railway at Craigellachie Junction|
Nearby is the historic Fiddichside Inn at the
Craigellachie’s whisky connection lies not just with its own distillery as it is also home to the Speyside Cooperage, the largest independent cask repairing business in the country. This facility not only provides a cask building and repair centre that supplies many distilleries, it is also a five star tourist attraction where you can see the coopers at work and appreciate some of the craft that goes into allowing our greatest product to mature in its oaky cocoon.
The importance of good oak casks and the variations that cask type, age, treatment, previous contents and even location in the warehouse can have has been the subject of many distillery communications, forum debates and comments from whisky ambassadors and writers in recent years. From the earliest days when casks were used simply to transport liquor, often in very small quarter-casks or smaller to help evade the pesky authorities, the influence of the cask in whisky production has gradually become more and more important and better understood and appreciated.
Some distillers now own their own forests in
Spain and and supervise the process from the very beginning at the planting of saplings. Others own their own bodegas and sherry seasoning operations to ensure the casks arrive in America exactly to the specification they need for their spirit. At Scotland , Glenmorangie and Macallan I had previously seen the importance of wood selection and cask construction in some detail and discovered the differences between American and European oak; at the Speyside Cooperage all of these factors are celebrated, together with the traditional craft of coopering. Highland Park
At one time almost every distillery had its own cooperage on-site and many were recorded by Barnard, although not in too much detail. One of his earliest descriptions was at Dundashill in
where the cooperage had “the usual facilities for steaming and seasoning new casks, and where the immense stock of casks, over 12,000, are overhauled and repaired as they are returned”. At Loch Katrine distillery he records casks piled in “a perfect pyramid” and at Clydesdale there were “upwards of 100 Sherry Butts just imported from Glasgow ”. His favourite description though, oft repeated, was just to say that a distillery had a “capital cooperage and cask shed”. Spain
|Speyside Cooperage and cask yard below Blue Hill|
Coopering in Barnard’s time was therefore a far more widespread industry that also supported the extensive breweries that patterned our cities in the Victorian era. Now there are only a few distilleries left who cooper on site and thus central cooperages such as Speyside supply the casks needed for most of the industry. The Speyside Cooperage was established in 1947 when it was located right beside the Craigellachie Distillery in the village. It moved to its present site just above the town in 1992 and this family-run business now builds or repairs well over 100,000 casks per year.
The visitor tour begins with time to browse the display boards, cask sections and coopering tools that take you through the long history of coopering as well as discussing the characteristics of different types of oak and different cask sizes. This is followed by a film that celebrates the life of an oak tree and the craft of the cooper, the journey from ‘Acorn to Cask’ that is the philosophy behind the visitor experience here. All very informative (and multi-lingual) and you will have a new appreciation of the humble Quercus acorn after you leave here.
The main reason to come here though is to see the coopers at work and the viewing platform above the main cask processing area gives a great view of all the activity below. The coopers here are trained on a four year apprenticeship and for many it becomes a career for life. They are paid on a piece-meal rate for each cask made or repaired and there are 16 coopers employed in total. This is obviously very physical work and many of the tools have changed little since Barnard’s time and long before, a good eye and steady hand required to fit the staves into a watertight cask that may then lie untouched in a warehouse for several decades.
The processes include repairing casks where some of the staves have become cracked or weakened, rebuilding hogsheads from staves imported from abroad and converting American barrels into different sized casks for storing whisky. Some of the tasks are automated to assist the coopers and speed the process but the traditional craft and skill remains as it always has.
In the yard behind the cooperage stand the ‘perfect pyramids’ that are the most efficient way of storing casks that are waiting for some tlc, either at the hands of a cooper or ready to convert the spirit from the still into whisky. The final results of the quality of each cask are not revealed for many years, and best appreciated from a single cask whisky, the individuality of each one testament to the personal touch of the cooper who selected the staves and built it.