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You never stop learning as a cooper

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Master Copper Ger Buckley at Jameson Black Barrel Launch event

Ger Burkley is master cooper with Jameson Black Barrel. He is trained to make wooden casks, barrels, vats, buckets, tubs, troughs and other staved containers from timber that was usually heated or steamed to make it pliable. In this interview with The Guardian, he explains his journey into the profession.

How did you get into the art of coopering and how long have you been doing it?
We have been coopers in my family for over 200 years. It wasn’t a choice. In hindsight, I guess I was lucky. An apprentice cooper came to the distillery looking for one, and luckily, I was off right age at the time. My dad was the senior cooper, and so, he just brought me down to the distillery to do the interview. In today’s world, it’s quite interesting that I did one interview and I’ve been in one job ever since. That was in 1976. I have been practicing as a cooper for almost 44 years.

What is the basic process of creating a barrel?
Barrel making is an African craft that was started in Egypt four and a half thousand years ago. It is essentially the same thing as it was back then. It hasn’t changed. Imagine if I were to go back to Egyptian times 4,000 years ago, I’d be doing the same work.

The first thing is the choice of wood and the quality of the wood. So, generally speaking, we use high-quality oak wood with no defects as this will cause leakage.

Individual pieces of wood called staves are then put together to create the barrel. To achieve this, you must calculate the angles of each one as they are all different sizes and widths. So everything I do is essentially by the eye and experience, except for one tool, which is a compass.

Next, I go around the top of the barrel, six times with the compass, which gives me the circumference of the lid called ahead. That’s about as simple as I can make it.

It’s very complicated, a lot can go wrong. If you’re making a barrel just to hold apples that’s fine, but if you want to make a barrel to hold whiskey, you better be very good at it, as the barrel should be able to hold it for 30 to 40 years.

You must also mark every barrel with your signature. For me, it’s a mark I inherited from my dad and my granddad, so, it’s number one. Put that stamp on the barrel and if anything happens to the barrel, for example, if it leaks later, it can be traced back to me. It’s a very high standard of work, you must reach perfection each time you make a barrel because if you don’t, the barrel will leak.

It’s very gratifying to know I do the exact same thing my dad taught me 44 years ago. This is the great thing about my craft, as there is no new training, there is no new software it never changes. Every barrel is different, every barrel has a new challenge. You have to see it to appreciate it.

How long did it take you to double char the barrels?
So, to double char the barrels, the lids have to be removed first. Traditionally, when we char a barrel, we re-use the shavings that we make in making the barrel. We now use gas in Kentucky and the cooperages in America, burning it at around 700 degrees for a minute or two. We time it perfectly to get that extra char.

Once the charring process is complete, what you get on the inside of the barrel is what they call a crocodile char it looks like crocodile skin it has got that pattern on it. That indicates it’s the server heavy char that we’re looking for, so you can do light or a medium char but what we’re looking for with Jameson Black Barrel is a heavy char. So we burn at 700 degrees for a minute or so with gas, but if we were burning it normally with wood, we would do it for a minute or thereabouts that it is not as intense.

How does the wood use affect the taste of the whiskey, is there a special wood used in creating the barrels?
Traditionally, you can make a barrel from any wood, what the Romans discovered over 2000 years ago is that using oak is much better than using other types of wood, which would release resins into the liquid and destroy the taste. It was very plentiful in Europe, it’s also a hardwood, therefore, it’s tough, it’s cut in a very special way. This is what we call quarter Swaine. You are looking to get the rings at 90 degrees to the board to double the strength. People from the Vikings to the Romans knew how to cut wood to make it stronger that must be done for all barrels. What we found from the 60s onwards when we started using American wood, is that we began to get a lot more sweetness from this wood, a lot of vanilla, caramel, toffee notes while with Spanish wood, for example, you get a lot of dark fruit notes. What makes Jameson Black Barrel different is the American wood contribution.

What was the inspiration behind Jameson Black Barrel?
The inspiration was for us to elevate the Jameson Original, almost for it to become Jameson’s big brother. In that, it is a bit more sophisticated, a bit more mature, a bit older, a bit more complicated. A few years ago we decided to do something special and experiment with a black barrel.

You’re a fifth-generation cooper and one of the only two coopers left in Ireland, can you tell us how your role has changed over the years?
For me, first and foremost it’s about having a passion for what you do, you never stop learning, you never stop trying to understand. The techniques, the wood, forestry, the barrels, you’re always learning. I still visit forests all the time, I visit other cooperages, and I meet other coopers, always expanding my knowledge. So, I’m a fifth-generation cooper, my family has been coopers for over 200 years, my dad was a master cooper before me. My team and I in Midleton are responsible for 1.6 M barrels. I’m directly involved with supervising the quality of barrels that we buy from our suppliers in Spain, France, Hungry and the U.S., we buy barrels from everywhere. Mainly our barrels come from Spain and the U.S, I would visit those cooperages and forests regularly. When I visit forests I make sure we are buying from sustainable forests that are traceable, we know where the wood is coming from and we make sure it’s being replanted.

We take extra care with all our barrels, for example, we never leave empty barrels outdoors and even when our barrels are finished with three fills, after about 35 to 40 years, they look like they just arrived at the site. They look brand new, no rusty hoops and that’s how well we look after our barrels, which is my responsibility.

What consumer or moments did you have in mind when creating the product?
New drinkers that are starting to develop a taste for whiskeys, all whiskeys including Jameson. We wanted to give them a further experience. We also wanted to target consumers who may have some knowledge of whiskey and Jameson, at this stage, as I’ve said, this is Jameson’s big brother, it’s a step up. It is more mature, a bit more complex. When we were designing this whiskey we wanted to be a bit more sophisticated with an older whiskey within the Jameson style, in other words, it’s still a blend.

So, that was the initial discussion when we were starting this a good number of years ago, in designing this whiskey. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength.

How closely do you work with the other masters?
I work closely with our blender Billy Layton; I have my own whiskey that we worked on a couple of years ago called Jameson Cooper’s Crows by Ger Buckley. It’s not available here in Nigeria, you might find it in different parts of the world, I work with our distiller Brian Nation, we meet regularly because there are always new innovations, new types of wood. In Northern Ireland, the law states you can mature whiskey in wood, in Scotland the law states you must mature it in oak.

How long does it take to become a cooper?
It takes four years now to do an apprenticeship and then another 10 to 12 years to truly acquire the expertise. The best way I can describe it is when you get to a stage where you’re repairing something and you don’t have to think about it, like riding a bike or driving a car that’s where you know if something is right or something is wrong, it goes beyond thinking almost. Using the tools is second nature; you can almost use them blindfolded. You often hear in sports, how athletes work up the 10,000 hours of experience I think it’s the same for a craftsperson. You just have to put in the time, the work the passion, to really become top quality.

What have you learned in your years as a cooper that wasn’t passed on by your father?
When I first started in the distillery, we didn’t know a whole lot about forestry, we knew how the wood was cut but I had never been to a sawmill. I had never been to a forest, I didn’t know the science of growing oak, and I didn’t understand the history of oak. Oak in European history is hugely important, evidence has shown that if we didn’t have oak as a species civilisation would be 300 to 400 years behind, it’s that important. So many useful products come from an oak tree. I would love to have experienced this all with my dad.

Now, I know that this is what I’ll teach my young lads that I’m training now in Ireland. Don’t ever get arrogant or proud, there is always something new to learn. Also, many people in different countries make barrels in different ways. They may all look the same at the end but each country takes a different approach. There are many new techniques.

What makes Jameson Black Barrel a super-premium whiskey like no other?
So, Jameson black barrel is unique for a few different reasons, firstly when we distill it in the barrel we do it very differently from everyone else.

Normally, when we make grain whiskey we put it through a column still, which is a continuous still and it does three distillations. But with the Jameson Black Barrel, the first distillation is done in a pot still, which is a huge metal copper pot. The next two distillations are in the column which gives a very unique batch of whiskey. We only do it one day a year; the process is slow and takes a lot of stills.


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