Sept 16 - 18, 2016

The process of producing whisky sounds fairly simple; make a beer from malted barley, distil the liquid, store in a cask, wait a few years, pour from cask to bottle and voilà, whisky. The reality is infinitely more complex and nuanced, with master craftsmen (or women) contributing their skills and experience at every stage of the journey from field to glass. One element in the alchemy of whisky is the cask selected for maturation. Whilst the length of time the whisky spends maturing (‘age’) is important, it is actually the selection of the ‘type’ of cask that is crucial to the final colour and flavour. As the lucky winner of Macallan’s ‘Map My Macallan’ photography contest I was treated to a behind the scenes tour of the Tevasa Cooperage in Jerez, the main supplier of Macallan’s European sherry casks, to learn from the ‘Master of Wood’ himself; Stuart MacPherson, about the importance of the wood in creating the complex flavour of the whisky. Tevasa is a family company, with a long history of producing high quality barrels in Spain. They source the finest Spanish red oaks in Galicia in Northern Spain, with a minimum age of 75 years; these are felled and allowed to rest in the forest for around 6 months. The logs are stored for a further 6 – 12 months before being made into staves and allowed to dry for another 18 - 24 months.  At this point the staves are transported south and left to dry out even more in the cooperages yards. So its takes at least 3 – 5 years before the wood can be used to build the casks! Firstly the (top) chime hoop is used as a template while the staves are added one by one around the entire diameter like a jigsaw. Once the round is complete a quarter hoop is used to more firmly secure the staves. A process is known as ‘mise en rose’ or the ‘setting the rose’ as the partially completed barrel fans out like the flower. Next, the staves must be bent into the familiar barrel shape. To soften the wood and give it flexibility the partially built barrel is placed into a corner of the cooperage that showers it with water, the damp barrels are rolled over fire pits and a cable system is used to pull the lower portion of the staves together so that the final hoops can be applied. The newly formed barrel is toasted over an open flame to char the insides – a dramatic sight to behold! Finally the head of the barrel is created and set by hand and the bung hole drilled. In all a semi-manual process that truly shows that coopering is an art demanding incredible skill.