The job has barely changed since the days of the Industrial Revolution; workshop walls lined with well-used tools handed down from tradesman to apprentice, the roar of blazing fire and the clatter of hammer on wood and metal.

For hundreds of years the master cooper's ability to build, repair and rejuvenate casks has been a final but sometimes forgotten vital ingredient in the slow process of whisky distillation.

Now soaring demand for their skills from a booming Scotch whisky sector has led to the highest number of coopers and apprentices since the late 1990s.

The upward trend is being driven by rising demand from existing and new ‘craft’ whisky distilleries demanding a constant flow of casks, and the reopening of distilleries mothballed during the 1980s whisky glut.

At the same time, pressure on supplies of casks from traditional sources means renewed requirement for coopers to repair and rejuvenate existing casks, and keep the spirit flowing.

It’s led to some highly experienced coopers working well beyond state retirement age so help meet demand and pass on their knowledge to a new generation of apprentices.

Demand for their skills means some can command at least £50,000 a year.

According to the National Cooperage Federation, in 2013 there were 186 coopers and just 25 apprentices working in Scotland. That compares to today’s total of 321, made up of 213 fully trained ‘masters’ and 108 apprentices.


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But that is still a long way from the 1980s when there were more than 1,000 coopers working across the country.

Numbers went into freefall after the ‘whisky loch’ saw supply outstrip demand, leading to distilleries and cooperages closing.  By 2005, there were just 188 coopers, including five apprentices, left.

“Coopering is fundamental to the whisky industry: you need casks,” says the Federation secretary, Fiona Whitelaw.

“Cask supply is challenging at the moment: the whisky industry is booming but bourbon is not doing so well.

“Whisky distilleries use old bourbon casks, so the coopers who repair and rejuvenate the casks are playing a fundamental part in the production of Scotch.

“Their numbers are on the increase for the first time in a while and we are seeing the highest number of coopers for some time.”

Most whisky casks are American white oak from the bourbon bonds of Kentucky where the law states they can only be used once. 

However, the white oak needed for the casks is in short supply, while sherry casks are even harder to come by, making it crucial that existing casks can be retained and rejuvenated for as long as possible.

Cooperages were once commonplace in burghs, with thousands of skilled coopers making and repairing barrels and casks for storing food, wine, beer and spirits.

Once a seven year apprenticeship, today's apprentices spend four years becoming expert in woodworking, often using almost two dozen different types of tools.

The Herald: Gerard Neill and Andy Moore (right) of Loch Lomond Whiskies' cooperage Gerard Neill and Andy Moore (right) of Loch Lomond Whiskies' cooperage (Image: Loch Lomond Whiskies)

They must also spot defects in wood and repair them so the cask remains watertight, and carry out the process of ‘dechar-rechar’, where the old carbon layer from the original charring is removed.

With the fresh wood exposed, it is then re-charred, allowing the spirit to extract components from the wood and the carbon to act as a filter.

A typical cask might be used three or four times maturing its contents for decades at a time before requiring a complete cooperage overhaul.

However, at Loch Lomond Whiskies, one of only four distilleries with its own on-site cooperage, the coopers' expertise means casks can be reused up to nine times.

It has ten coopers and an apprentice, including 69-year-old 'Cooper of the Year 2023' Andy Moore. 

He completed his apprenticeship in 1973 and worked through the lean ‘whisky loch’ years, despite warnings of difficult days ahead.

“When I first started, my journeyman told me to find another apprenticeship because coopering was a dying trade,” he says. “Fifty-five years later I’m still here, and I’d say the art is alive and well.”


The Herald: Loch Lomond Whiskies' coopers Gerard Neill, Andy Moore and apprentice, Dalton LeithLoch Lomond Whiskies' coopers Gerard Neill, Andy Moore and apprentice, Dalton Leith (Image: Loch Lomond Whiskies)

Over a 50-year career, he has helped train five apprentices, and since joining the Loch Lomond distillery in 2014 has worked on approximately 50,000 casks.

The job has barely changed since he started work half a decade ago.  “Having a keen eye for quality wood and the ability to repair it are the basic skills required, but it’s time and learning on the job over many years which has taught me everything I know. 

“I’ve seen an increase in production as whisky gets even more popular, so it’s really important to have future generations that can keep the craft going.”

In a typical year the cooperage team carry out major repairs to some 10,000 barrels, and re-char a further 10,000. 

The distillery takes on a new apprentice every two years with the next one due to be appointed in September.

They will join Dalton Leith, 22, who joined as an apprentice last year. Unlike many who enter coopering through family links, he had no previous knowledge of the trade.

“I thought a cooper apprentice seemed an interesting career path, and something different to usual jobs,” he says.

“I’ve already learned a lot about the ancient craft, from working with the traditional tools to getting to know what a quality cask should look like.

“My favourite part of the job is learning all about the techniques - the worst part is brushing the shop.”

Michael Henry, Master Blender at Loch Lomond Whiskies, says: "Being one unanimous team and having oversight on the cooper’s work on the casks is incredibly valuable and unique. The cooperage allows us to have much more flexibility to influence our own expressions through the cask type.  

"For example – our Steam & Fire single malt was finished in heavily charred American oak casks, which were flamed onsite. 

"Coopers play such an integral part in the whisky making process. Every flavourful and delicious whisky begins its life in a cask, and the better cared for, preserved, and built these are – the better the final product.” 

As well as a new generation of coopers, there are new cooperages emerging.

Oakwood Cooperage launched in 2018 and has 100 people working at its bases in Keith on Speyside and Uddingston.

And Westway Cooperage near Glasgow Airport was launched in 2021 by brothers Jamie, Andrew and Stephen Reilly, third-generation master coopers whose family roots in the industry stretch more than 60 years.

The Herald: Westway Cooperage has plans to increase the size of its premisesWestway Cooperage has plans to increase the size of its premises (Image: Canmoor/Westway)

It recently announced plans to double the size of its premises to accommodate a growing workforce and booming order book.

Also said to be seeking larger premises is Fisher Cooperage, founded in 1998 by George McGhee and the last independent and family-run cooperage left in Scotland. Its 25 staff handle up to 400 casks at day from its Shettleston Road, Glasgow, base.

French cooperage firm Tonnellerie François Frères, has also boosted the workforce at Camlachie Cooperage in Fullarton Road near Cambuslang, which handles more than 100,000 casks every year, and Speyside Cooperage, the only cooperage to have a visitor centre.

It announced an “aggressive cooper apprenticeship programme” in 2020, and plans to increase its skilled workforce by 20% every six months until this summer.

The Herald: Brian 'Morgy' Morgan undergoes a traditional cooper's initiation at Speyside Cooperage in Tullibody

The rising number of apprentices has also led to the revival of a traditional ‘blackening’ rite of passage.

For centuries they were only considered to have graduated once they had endured the messy process of being smothered in black gunge often consisting of pot ale, molasses, sawdust and feathers, before being rolled around the cooperage in a sherry butt.

Having been on hold for a decade, the process was revived in 2016 at Speyside Cooperage with the graduation of two apprentices and, more recently, in January, with the graduation of its latest apprentice.