Part of the tour is a recreation of the cooperage, ie where casks were repaired or assembled. Here it is:
|The old cooperage|
|The new cooperage|
|Two adzes, a topper and (behind) a croze|
When we arrived, John was repairing an ex-bourbon cask that had perhaps slipped off a pallet and struck the ground hard along one edge. Half-a-dozen or more of the staves had cracked so John had removed the iron hoops holding the cask together and was swapping in fresh staves from a sacrificial cask. These weren't quite the same length so he squared them off first before fitting.
|John Neilly adding new staves in place of damaged ones|
|Inserting a dried rush between staves|
There is more hammering to drive the hoops on tightly, and to persuade the staves to lie flush. In Kilbeggan, John works alone but he has also toiled in cooperages of up to 30 men. The racket must have been immense!
It sounds like a tough trade, but a very satisfying one to master. Whiskey would be nothing without its time in cask. The interaction between spirit and wood is a kind of alchemy, and Cooley is very fortunate to have a master cooper who can not only repair a cask but can create new types of cask to stretch the raw spirit in creative directions. Alex Chasko, the Innovation Manager at Cooley, hopes to lay his hands on some fresh Irish oak, for example, which John will craft into brand new casks. We are used to the influence of pre-seasoned American and European oak on our whiskey but what will Irish oak do? Nobody knows, but thanks to John's mastery of an ancient craft handed down over countless generations, we will find out.
I'd like to thank John Neilly for giving very generously of his time and knowledge, and Bernadette and Brian Quinn of Kilbeggan Distillery for allowing us the behind-the-scenes access. We came away with a new appreciation for the remarkable, fascinating and ever-changing operation at Kilbeggan.
|John Neilly, Cooper|