Last year saw the crowning of Mr. Vandenbossche as Head Cooper of the recently established Tullamore D.E.W. Distillery. This year, he’s expanding his team, taking two young bucks under his wing as part of Tullamore’s inaugural apprenticeship program. A rare sight to see in the industry. We spoke with Vandenbossche on his new role, his past and his take on the trade that has taken him to cooperages across France, Scotland and now his new home in Ireland.
Q: What does it take to become a cooper?
While there are no real requirements to become a cooper, you must just love to swing the hammer. The smells of the trade, the smell of the toasted oak and the cold iron…I would say that it is a trade driven by passion. It is not a love at first sight however, but a relationship you build up over the years. The joy of dressing a barrel, the bending and toasting of the wood. It evokes a feeling of pride after a good day of reparation.
Q: You’ve only just moved to Tullamore, tell us more about your journey.
So there are different type of coopers and I had the chance to have experience in all of them. I started in France as an apprentice at a small but unique cooperage in the Champagne Region. Over there I was building brand new barrels made of French oak starting from straight planks of oak specially selected for casks. I was also cleaning them for customers when they were full of scale on the inside. I was taking care of a warehouse full of casks from the house “Krug” by burning Sulphur to prevent any kind of contamination.
Then I moved to an even smaller Cooperage in Normandy where I learned another type of coopering. What we call in French “foudre” or “grand contenant”, are basically all types of casks bigger than a 1000 litres. That includes Wooden Vats of course. For me it is the hardest and most rewarding type of coopering. We would work on a single piece for weeks with very long days. By far the most challenging experience since I started this trade.
After that, I moved to another type of cooperage in Cognac, more traditional in some way. I was for the first time in a real large scale production cooperage. We were building every kind of casks from the “225 L Bordeaux” to the 500L standard. At the same time, everywhere I was going I was learning about the local techniques, tool names and types of alcohol which is very useful If you want to understand why you are doing this job.
So That was some example of what is being a cooper in France. Being a cooper in Ireland is exactly like being a cooper in Scotland, because we are working for distilleries. Here coopers rarely build casks from scratch, we do not produce casks, we repair them.
Q: Is there a secret formula to the craft?
The secret is that there is no real secret, every cooper sort of has their own way of doing it. We all develop small techniques that will make our day easier. We pass these techniques on to the next generation, but it’s up to them to fine tune their process throughout the rest of their career. Of course we would teach certain tips and tricks but it is up to the apprentice to use them or find another way, better or not. To sum up, you need to be strong in your arm and in your mind to soldier on every day, to keep the same quality of work. It is a game of patience and strength.
Q: What does your day-to-day look like?
It varies, but mainly revolves around repairing barrels. Bourbon, refill, sherry butts, any kind of cask I have assessed and judged not fit for filling. I would do around 20 to 25 barrels on a normal day using what we call shifters to perform a “cannibal repair” which is basically using unused casks to repair others. I would remake the hoop of the casks, give it a nose to check if it doesn’t carry a bad smell that would contaminate the spirit, replace any damaged ends or staves and make sure that the casks will be fully operational. Most of the time the barrels I repair are filled on the same day or the day after and it better not be leaking or I am in trouble! Now that I have two apprentices I have to teach them everything I know. I have to take time to show them the right movements and techniques, teach them how to sharpen tools and use the machines amongst other routine jobs.
It is quite a dirty environment. Wet, rusty, dusty. There’s char everywhere, around my bench, wood chips, cooper’s flags and bungs etc. So a big part of the day is spent cleaning because there is nothing more annoying than working in a mess. I work very closely with the rest of the team, some of them are even helping me with my daily work. One major responsible of mine is ensuring everybody has the knowledge and tools necessary to handle barrels properly, ensuring they know how to check the casks for any signs of leakage, and know how to perform what we call bond repair. Little fixes on the spot, either in the warehouse or straight after filling. They probably all hate me a little because I do not tolerate any leaking casks being sent to the warehouse.
Q: Can you give examples of the challenges you have faced when moving into new territories?
Well, moving into new territories is something I’ve experienced a lot throughout my career. The biggest move was from French/wine coopering to whiskey coopering. The difference of the techniques, process, knowledge and quality of the finished product is huge. I had to relearn my job to fit into this new world, learn how to work quickly. Repairing casks was not my strong point but 4 years into I can say I managed to catch up quickly. It was hard but it was worth it especially when you have to manage another language at the same time. Fortunately, I met good coopers who helped me a lot.
Starting at Tullamore distillery was another big change as for the first time all eyes were on me. I am of course the first and only cooper at Tullamore so that responsibility comes with more pressure. I’ve learnt how to explain things to a non-cooper, to be some kind of teacher. Also, for the first time, I have apprentices to teach, which is very new for me. Despite these new challenges, I was really looking for this. To push my boundaries further, and improve my craft. I have honestly learned a lot since I’ve been in Ireland. What I love about this adventure here is that there are no limits. The trade is not very popular or well-known to the public so I feel I’m part of this new story in the Irish Whiskey industry.
Q: It’s reportedly common for distilleries not to automatically hire a cooper, at least not in a permanent position. Is this a statement you would agree with, and if so, why would this be the case? What are the positives in having an on-site cooper?
Oh yeah I agree. It’s about cost. You need machinery and supply to run a cooperage plus coopers are difficult to find especially in Ireland. If you want to run a more efficient distillery, if you want to have a better control over the angel’s share you should have a cooper. You would have more certainty about the barrel you are filling instead of taking a chance and filling whatever you have and pray for it to keep the spirit inside. A cooper will be able to fix any leak or to advise you about your barrels you want to fill just by looking at it and giving it a nose. He can provide a general education around casks and how to handle them in a safe and correct manner to all staff members working around casks. If you have unfillable casks he can repair them and avoid the hassle of having to sell them and send them to a cooperage in Scotland which has a huge cost. Sometimes I just wonder how young distilleries can run properly without a cooper around. It is a huge benefit for distilleries at the end if you think about it. Now you have to motivate all these new distilleries to develop this craft in Ireland but that’s another problem.
Q: How important is the element of tradition and craftsmanship today versus when you began your profession.
Well I am not such an old cooper so It is not that different. I personally don’t really give much importance to tradition in the craft on a daily basis. The basic knowledge is still the same even if now we have a better understanding of the wood structure, its influence on every beverage. I think it is just very important for any apprentices to learn where the craft is coming from, to know all traditional techniques , for example, knowing how to build a barrel by hand from scrap is still very important. We are very fortunate in the whiskey part of the trade because repairing barrels, which is our main activity, gives a huge importance to craftsmanship and traditional techniques.
Q: For better or worse, how has modern advances in production affected traditional methods?
Well I might sound lazy and it is hard to compare as I always worked in a modern way but I can imagine it is much easier to be a cooper right now. Modern production methods makes our work faster of course and we are less subject to health problems. With my day to day work, I am lucky. I am not working on a fully-automated production line pushing buttons to make barrels or relying entirely on machines to perform my job. I still have a big part of traditional manual work which could hardly be replaced in any way. I think coopers should keep a foot in both sides as it is important not to lose ancestral knowledge as well as not making our life harder than it should be. I can say with confidence that it is generally the case.
Q: Regarding whiskey profiles, what techniques can a cooper apply to affect the finished product? Do different cask types suit specific end goals?
There are two very important aspects of a barrel that the cooper will work on to affect the finished product. The wood itself of course, and the toasting/charring on the inside. Both affect the profile of the whiskey, its colour, nose and flavour. The cooper will ensure that the wood selected is following certain standards. Type of wood, its origin, the tightness of the grain, the dryness of the wood etc. That is already a strong base for a good barrel that will help the whiskey mature in a proper way. But it is not enoug
The inside of the cask must be toasted or charred. The wood quality is very important to be able to bend the barrel to its final shape. For that we use heat. Fire, steam or boiled water will do the trick, liquifying the lignin of the wood allowing it to bend. After that ,the cooper immediately proceeds with the toasting by again using different techniques (fire, ceramic, infrared). This step will cook the wood deeply and break up its components so that they will come in contact with the spirit, influencing its taste (vanilla, coconut, caramel or bakery flavour for example). To give Ireland an analogy, think of a cask like a teabag. The longer liquid passes through it, the more flavour it imparts to the liquid.
To sum up, depending on the wood origin, it’s quality, the toasting technique, the length and strength of the toast or char level, the barrel, the organoleptic profile will change and give different flavour to a whiskey or any beverage. If I can give you some examples, the cooper will often give a very light toast to a cask that will mature white wine, what we call white toast. For a spirit like cognac and whiskey, a deep and intense toast to char is preferable. Although there are many exceptions, the general trend is to use American oak for whiskey casks and generally European oak for wine.
The size and the shape of the casks are important as well. The shape influences what’s called inertia within the barrel. Which is how the spirit circulates while in cask. The size of the barrel will influence its colour and the time of maturation. The smaller the barrel the faster the maturation will occur and vice versa, because the surface area to volume ratio of wood/spirit is higher in a small barrel. So if you want a very oaky, dark beverage you would use smaller casks, such as an ASB or quarter casks. Contrarily, if you want something less oaky and of paler coloration, puncheons, butts or even bigger casks are recommended.
Q: Other whiskey producing nations have established coopering scenes relevant to their output. With the surge of distilleries coming online, is Irish coopering rising in tandem?
Well at the moment I cannot see a lot of coopering activity in the country, there are not so many but I am sure it will come. I just started to train two apprentices so who knows how many more will follow them. I will try to get in contact with some of them to have an idea of the number of coopers. You can be sure that more distilleries will seek to have more control over their barrels and better quality. They will quickly understand the benefits of having a cooper, or a commercial cooperage. Sending casks to Scotland to be repaired is tremendously difficult and costly.
People were saying in the 40’s that the world would always need coopers, some decades later they were unfortunately proven wrong. Nowadays however, the craft is being raised from the ashes, so it turns out they were actually right. The world needs good spirit and good wine, and the only serious way is through maturation in casks. The problem is that training a cooper takes time. People need to invest in them. So It will be a slow process but let’s see in 10 years where we are.
I would love to train more and more young apprentices , boys and girls, that will become the new generation of irish coopers. Also I would love to see a cooper school developed in the country and see the trade getting together and helping together as it grows, in some kind of big family, I know it is a bit naïve but I am sure other coopers in the state would agree with this. There is a trade federation in Scotland so why could we not have a Irish cooper trade union?
Q: Is the craft being lost to machines and automation, or do you believe there is still much work to be done at the hands of the cooper?
The craft will remain the same now, we have reached a limit of what engineering can do for coopers, I mean for this type of coopering of course. They already have a big production line in the U.S. but that’s the exception. There always will be room for the touch and eye of a true craftsman. That cannot be replaced by machines. The trade has long days ahead, and I hope it will remain like this forever. There is no shortcut for quality and a work well done. Coopers are part of the spirit landscape and I cannot see that changing.