It seems everyone visiting Scotland tours a whisky distillery. But try to visit a cooperage as well. Last year, while working on my Scotland guidebook, I enjoyed the Speyside Cooperage (about an hour southeast of Inverness) and knew I had to come back with our Rick Steves’ Europe crew. We just did, and filmed what I’m sure will be one of the best sequences of the three Scotland episodes we’ll be releasing this fall.
Join me with this little clip, from the floor of this amazing workshop.
Here’s how we described the Speyside Cooperage in our script:
Of the hundred or so whisky distilleries in Scotland, about half lie near the valley of the River Spey. Its prized waters, along with a favorable climate and soil for barley, have attracted distillers here for centuries.
Along with natural resources (water and barley), a critical part of the Scotch-making process is quality barrels. The Speyside Cooperage welcomes visitors with guided tours. From an observation deck, you’ll watch master coopers making casks for distilleries throughout Scotland. Perhaps the single biggest factor in defining whisky’s unique flavor is the barrel it’s aged in.
The process is essentially the same today as it was centuries ago. In order to be water-tight, the oak staves are lassoed tightly by metal hoops, and tight-fitting lids are banged into place and sealed with a calking of freshwater reeds. Finally, the inside is artfully charred, creating a carbonized coating that helps give whisky its golden hue and flavor.
The United States actually contributes to the character of Scotch whisky because most of the casks used in Scotland are made from the staves of hand-me-down bourbon casks from Kentucky. It’s impressive to see the intensity and focus of the coopers — who are paid by the piece.