Discovering the Lifecycle of a Cask - Colin Hampden-White

Colin Hampden-White

Recently I took a trip to Scotland with our Head of Operations Jessica Simmons to film a video about the lifecycle of a cask. I usually go to Scotland to visit distilleries, and at the end of a tour, we visit a warehouse. This is usually when the cask is introduced to the story, but it is only part of the story, and often only half told...

For our first stop of the tour, just before we came to the casks themselves, we visited one of the prettiest distilleries in Speyside - the Speyside Distillery, which sits on the edge of the region. It lies next to the river Tromie, a tributary of the river Spey, amongst lush green forests and bountiful fields of grain. The distillery itself is very small and all the equipment lies in the same building. Having only been completed in 1990 it boasts quite a modern interior, but with traditional stills and spirit safe. Having first filmed the distillation process, the casks were our next stop...!

A cask starts its life as a tree and, once cut, is used in another country for maturing another liquid such as bourbon or sherry, then taken apart, before coming to Scotland to be reassembled. We visited the Speyside cooperage to experience such reassembly. It takes four years of apprenticeship to become a cooper, and we could see why! Fitting all the staves together into different cask sizes from quarter casks to sherry butts is very skilful, and extremely physical work. The noise level was deafening as hammers clashed on steel bands that hold the casks together, and wood was squeezed in place to be watertight. The casks are then charred to differing levels, then tested with high-pressure water.

Once completed, the next part of the lifecycle of a cask is filling. This is a relatively quick process and, with modern equipment, many casks can be filled in a day. The pumps can be set to specific amounts of spirit to be filled into each cask. Vast, towering vats of spirit lie in wait as the casks arrive to be filled. Incidentally, where our casks were filled is also one of the places they are stored. So, we took a peek inside the warehouses.

Where our whisky casks are kept has all three types of warehousing, namely traditional style dunnage, racking, and palletisation. We often get asked by customers if they can visit a cask. Now whilst this may be possible in a dunnage warehouse where they are only stacked three high and most of the casks are accessible, hardly any casks are stored in dunnage warehouses – particularly not younger casks. Once you see racking or palletisation in action it’s clear why one can’t visit a cask! The pallets are stacked ten-high, with four casks to a pallet, which are all then stored next to one another six or eight pallets deep - if your cask isn’t at the front, then whatever casks precede it have to be removed to gain access.

Younger casks are kept at the back, as they don’t need to be drawn from for sampling or regauging for at least five years. Older casks may be kept at the front or passed to racking for storage. Racking stores individual casks on what looks like a huge wine rack, with forklift trucks used to move casks. 12 racks high and many wide, it is impossible to organise a visit, but samples can be drawn, and re-gauging done more easily. Old and venerable casks may be kept in a dunnage warehouse in order that a closer eye may be kept on them; they may need sampling as well as health-checking more frequently before bottling.

What is remarkable with these warehouses is that there are usually only two people on duty at any one time to take samples, do re-gauges, move casks, keep inventories and ledgers of ownership, take new casks in for storage, and prepare casks for transportation to bottling halls. They may be looking after many thousands of casks – no wonder that they barely have time to do all this.

We visited one old dunnage warehouse which is situated in the now-closed Coleburn distillery. Built on old malting floors, the warehouse is one of the few double-level warehouses in operation. With stone walls and wooden beams, it is a lovely little piece of history. The stone walls are home to many spiders and a black sac fungus that loves alcohol, called Baudoina Compniacensis - this gives a dank, damp smell which, when mixed with maturing spirit, has a distinctive aroma only found in these old warehouses. These old buildings have a great deal of charm, but also have the practical purpose of keeping the Angel's Share in check, with their cool and damp atmosphere.

During the lifecycle of a cask, it may be regauged to see how much liquid it has within, and what the ABV is. These details can give an indication of how much life there is left in the whisky. For example, after 20 years if the ABV and liquid levels are still good, the cask can go on ageing (having been sampled for flavour too). If the ABV is low, then it really needs to be bottled. If the whisky doesn’t taste as desired, then a re-rack can take place. This involves taking the whisky out of the cask and placing it into a more active cask to give it a boost of flavour. All these things take place in the warehouse.

Once it has been decided that a cask is ready to bottle, it is moved from the warehouse to a bottling hall. These can be huge and move at great speed, especially if bottling large volumes of blended whisky for the world market. However, at Young Spirits in Edinburgh (where we visited) they are well set up for bottling just one cask at a time. With a four-bottle filler, the bottles are on a production line which air-cleans them before being filled, and then either a machine (or in the case of more complex labels, nimble fingers) places the labels, and the bottles are boxed up for transport.

At this point, the cask may be used again and re-filled with whisky, or if it has been filled a few times already, it ends its life as a maturation vessel and begins a new one:  garden furniture, a plant pot, a home bar, a tasting stave (to place whisky glasses on for tastings) – indeed, any other useful item your imagination can muster up for the repurposing of an empty cask. And of course, the final joy of the result of the cask’s work is the drinking. So, why not settle back with a dram that’s ‘old enough to drive’, and dream of whisky?

View the 'From Grain to Glass' video here.

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