The yew tree doesn’t die, Ger Buckley explains. He’s got a big block crosscut section of one right in front of us, held across his knee. He points out the coloring of the wood — here a deep chocolate, riddled throughout with a base of beautiful chestnut brown, even in one spot a splotch that’s nearly pink — which all swirls across the surface like ether exposed to the light. Well, they do die, obviously. But what he’s trying to say is that these trees live ages. Up to 5,000 years. When you cut the yew it turns bright red, like it’s bleeding, which is why it’s the only tree he’s ever cut that felt really like a living thing that he’d killed. We stand in silence in his workshop, staring at the yew slab, thinking of life and death and time, surrounded by wood and its deep smells of eternity and the slow process of rot.
A lot of coopering is actually feel. It’s instinct.
Buckley is the master cooper at Jameson‘s Midleton distillery. He’s in charge of the distillery’s barrels, though unlike a traditional cooper he doesn’t make any barrels from scratch during his day job. That’s a product of the way Irish and Scotch whiskey is made: all of their barrels have been made from oak elsewhere, often on mechanized production lines; Jameson buys them after they’ve been used to age bourbon, sherry or port. The previous renters of the barrels lend Jameson’s whiskey much of its flavor, and dictate Buckley’s job description: his focus is keeping the distillery’s barrels in shape, repairing cracks and other damage that can be invisible to the naked eye in the staves so they don’t leak during the years of aging it takes to mature a whiskey. This he does by hand, in his moldering cooperage filled with mottled barrels in need of structural repair, often using only traditional tools.
Which would be impressive enough, considering Buckley’s done it for his entire adult life and can still use a hammer to tighten a barrel’s hoops with the rhythm of an angry metronome. But he’s also the fifth generation of a family of coopers whose singular career experience stretches back 200 years. As far as humans go, that’s yew-like.
Buckley bloodline is fertile ground for a love of wood — be that oak, yew or any other number of species, used for whiskey barrels or not — and his contentment with his career is obvious. He’s the kind of beloved company man whom young employees embrace like he’s their grandpa, who has known the company’s current master distiller, Brian Nation, “boy and man”, since he started at the brewery nearly 20 years ago. Buckley, at 55, has the excitement of a schoolboy when it comes to coopering, and the expertise of a meister. As he explains his craft he roves about his shop, fingering handmade tools and taking every opportunity to demonstrate on the wood. “I’m slower than I used to be,” he tells us after he’s hammered iron hoops into place around a bourbon barrel’s arched staves. “But even at my best I was never as good a cooper as my dad.” It’s all about precedence in Ger Buckley’s shop, and even if it is true he never eclipsed his father’s excellence, he seems content with the place he’s found in the Buckley family history, within a special career shared by few men in the world today, and with the medium that lives and grows and ages and rots around him all day, every day.
Q. Can you kind of go over pretty broadly what a cooper is, and what you do?
A. A cooper is an old Greek word that means vat maker. So you’re making a container. The art of coopering started four-and-a-half thousand years ago with basically just a wooden top. You’re just taking pieces of wood, called staves, making them into a shape, putting an angle on them, to form a container… [Barrels were] a principle container for well over 2,000 years, for everything from apples to jams, to meat, to fish, to whiskey, to wine. It became the principle container. Here in Cork, one of the main containers we made was a cask called a firkin, which my grandfather and his people all before him made for exporting to the British Empire.
Now, the one thing about coopering is that when you make your container, your cask, it has to be spirit tight. That is extremely difficult — to make a container that will not leak — because so much can go wrong in the whole process. As somebody said, there are no DIY coopers. There is no book that you can read. There’s nothing like that. You have to be taught it. It’s not something that you can pick up because you can make a container and fit it, and it just pours out, and you don’t know why. It’s definitely one of the more skillful of the trades. It’s basically making a container that we can put whiskey in for up to 30, 40 years if necessary and never leak.
Q. Here at Jameson do you make any barrels by hand?
A. No, we don’t. I repair all casks. We import American casks from Kentucky and Tennessee. We import sherry casks called butts from Jerez in Spain. A sherry butt is about a 500-liter cask. It’s identical to a Roman cask of 2,000 years ago. The only difference now is steel hoops rather than timber hoops, but the size and capacity is exactly the same as a Roman butt, and I repair it the exact same way, and I do everything that a Roman cooper would have done — or a Greek cooper, or even an Egyptian cooper. Once the barrel had been invented and made, there had been no improvement. There is no improvement. The design is the same as it was 2,000 years ago. The tools have improved, but everything I do is linked back in history for thousands of years, which — I really get a kick out of knowing that I am still working in a very traditional setting and manner, you know?
Q. So can you explain the barrels — their importance to the spirit?
A. Essentially, where you have to start with is what type of wood. For us, it’s always white oak, and essentially with the Romans we discovered that white oak was the choice timber. Basically because it was strong, it didn’t taint the wine like pines would or other woods would. Oak — it probably wasn’t understood then, about how to mature a wine in a cask, and the benefits of that. Maybe accidentally it happened, but then as the centuries moved on, when we started aging whiskey in Ireland — we were the first to invent whiskey. We started aging whiskey in casks, and first it gives 100 percent of its color, and depending on the age of the whiskey, up to 50 percent of the taste can come from the wood. With our white oaks we have American [oak], which is very sweet. It has a lot of vanilla, toasted wood. The European [oak] is very kind of nutty, spicy dark fruits, plumbs, Christmas cake as we call it here. And so the two oaks are very different in taste, and they contribute very different things to the whiskey, and so Midleton Rare is only matured in American oak casks because our [previous] master distiller, who retired, liked that vanilla and sweetness contribution from American oak, and so the pot stills — a lot of the pot stills are matured in America and Europe so we can blend the two. So the oak is half the process. One half is distilling. The next half is maturing in oak. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a very important process.
There are no DIY coopers. There is no book that you can read. There’s nothing like that. You have to be taught it. It’s not something that you can pick up because you can make a container and fit it, and it just pours out, and you don’t know why.
Q. You seem extremely close to the master distiller, Brian Nation. You guys seem to have a cool relationship. How do you interact on a work basis?
A. I have known Brian quite a long time now since he first came to the distillery fresh out of college. We do interact, when we get new types of casks or [he’s wondering] what types of casks cause different problems, which only a cooper can answer. And so that’s what I end up repairing. Brian occasionally might pop in and say, “What’s going on?” Because he does, like, you know, everything that will interact with the whiskey. Being a master distiller, his responsibilities are huge not just in making whiskey, but on how it matures as well. In the last two years, Midleton Rare is coming out with Brian’s signature on it, so he would want to know all about American barrels and how good they are and everything, so we do interact ever now and again.
Q: People keep talking about how coopers are a dying breed. Is that true? And why?
A: It is. Basically, it’s a couple of reasons, over time. At the turn of the 19th century here in Ireland alone there was about 10,500 coopers, but that was to cover all aspects of coopering. You would have wet coopering, which was making whiskey barrels, beer barrels, etc., wine barrels. Dry coopering would have been making household instruments: butter churns, tubs, mugs — whatever — even washtubs, and you would have that type of coopering.
In the beer industry when you brought in steel to make kegs instead of beer barrels, that completely wiped out the trade at that time. Guinness, at the height of their brewing, had 700 coopers. And overnight, with steel kegs, they had no more coopers. But with whiskey, because we still have to mature whiskey in timber casks, there’s a need for coopering. We’ve gone from 10,500 at the turn of the 19th century in Ireland now down to four. We have two here in Midleton. There’s one in Cooley Distillery, one in Bushmill’s Distillery. We now have an apprentice to continue, and Bushmills is having an apprentice, so it will continue. There will always be something present. Worldwide in estimate there may be 1,500, 2,000 coopers in the world left, but it’s still essential.
A lot can go wrong with a cask or how to repair a cask. It can only be done with a cooper. The mechanical lines that they have now for making American casks — you just have operatives who are technicians just to make the casks. If the casks fail, or if a stave breaks, only the cooper can repair the cask. They have coopers who only do repair. That’s why the numbers are falling so drastically. We’re at the end of needing coopers for household stuff, the end of brewery coopers, and not so much relying on distillery coopers.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about how you learned coopering?
A. When I first started, I did one interview with distillers for one job. I was still in school, and I was 16, so, my father being a senior cooper, I got the position because generally, you would have always tried to get your son into the trade because one, it was so skillful, but two, it was highly paid — and that would have been [the same] in other crafts, whether you were a blacksmith or silversmith or whatever craft you were. You always tried to keep it a family business, and so when I entered cooperage, I served my apprenticeship directly to my dad, which even at that time was unusual. You would normally serve some of your time with somebody else.
I worked directly with my dad. Not everybody can say that.
That was great and great to look back and remember a lot of times I had with him, and he’d teach me how to use different tools such as the axe. I learned that from him. The downside of that is that if you had been out too late the night before, he was the boss in work, so there was no arguing at work. You could argue at home, but you couldn’t argue at work, and you usually got a lot more work, and the more you put on any disagreement, you got more work. It was good discipline, and it was great in hindsight to look back, and I am very proud of that. I worked directly with my dad. Not everybody can say that.
Q. How long did it take for you to perfect the skills?
A. The apprenticeship is four years, but really, it’s 10 to 12 years to get to a level where it becomes second nature. I think the term is forced now, where they say 10,000 hours for skill levels to come up. It would be the same coopering. You need to put in the time. You need to work with the tools every day, and it just takes time to build up that feel. A lot of coopering is actually feel. It’s instinct. When you are making, say, a smaller cask, you just know one stave is in the wrong place, it’s got to be moved or it doesn’t quite fit in, or the joint isn’t quite right. The angle of the stave isn’t quite right. It almost happens without thinking. It happens naturally. I just move it. I don’t have to study it, and that takes a while. And it takes dedication to the craft. Not every cooper in town was that dedicated, but I have always worked learning from other coopers in the shop then as well on making oval casks, little tubs, little cord buckets, making miniature casks. I want to build it all, and I am still learning. I am still learning all the time.
Recently, one of the newer whiskeys we launched — we’ve done a lot of work for the last six years in the forestry where I have learned a lot of the science and knowledge, of course, behind growing oak and then harvesting it and then cutting it and then making it into casks in Spain. So that’s all been new to me. Normally, a cooper would never end up in a forest, but to see what goes on there and the skill levels there are tremendous as well.
Q. What is it about woodworking?
A. Well, I suppose it’s in my genes because I am a fifth-generation [cooper]; for 200 years my family have been coopers, and so there might be truth in that. Making a barrel isn’t going to be for everybody, but for example, when I do wood turning, it’s just a block of woods, and two hours later, I have made a bowl, or I have made a lamp, or even a simple thing like making a pin, and there’s great satisfaction in that. I end up giving all my stuff away, and I never charge money for it, and so I see pieces in friend’s houses, and so it’s a satisfaction, and it’s just maybe natural to work and produce something. And wood for me is — metal does it for other people, or ceramics or whatever, but I think those kind of crafts and hobbies are great for people’s karma, and, you know, goodness and well-being in life.
Q. The barrels that you guys get from bourbon distilleries, the American oak. Are they pretty durable?
A. The industry definitely has a higher quality of cask. Our sherry butts are of the highest quality, and the American barrel is such a mechanized production line that they don’t have to be the same standard. They don’t have the same finish as a wine barrel does, but at the same time, it must contain that liquid for whatever length of time. It doesn’t matter.
Q. I would think that would be hard because knots are very commonplace. So you must be —
A. Well, that’s the science of growing old. Traditionally, what was done, particularly here in Ireland and England, is that when you planted, your most valuable wood was old. When you planted a sapling, you guarded that sapling as best you could — so you would plant nursery trees such as holly, beech. And holly is great in winter because it will protect that sapling from severe wind and frost, and even rain. When the sapling got up big enough, to maybe five or six feet tall, you might then pack some beech trees on the outskirts of an oakwood or whatever. What the beech does — it has a huge canopy, completely swallowing up all light. That forces the oak to keep reaching so the canopy of the oak is only on the crown, and it doesn’t send out branches because it has no light hitting it, and that way you can grow a pole of oak with no branches.
I want to build it all, and I am still learning. I am still learning all the time.
Now, you would also have trimmed the branches as well. You would have gone in and trimmed the branches, but you were trying to get nature to help you with the work. You end up with this oak reaching to grow above the beech, and not so many branches. It’s something even the new growers are relearning — how to grow oak perfectly. Now, a pole of oak was essential for all crafts, if you had no knot in it. If you have an oak tree that is just full of branches, then it’s only firewood for shipbuilding, for furniture making, for lumber, for housing. You want your oak as tough as you can get it.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. Essentially I want to remembered really for my craft as a cooper, not so much — like a lot of people give me a hard time about being well known or a celebrity. What I’d really liked to be remembered as is being skillful as a cooper and a lot like my dad. I do strive to try and be as good as him and match his craft, because he would have worked with a cooper’s axe and stuff every day. They are not tools I use every day anymore, and I want to pass on those skills, and we do have an apprentice. I hope to pass on all those old skills, even though they are not necessary anymore — but I think it’s essential to tradition and everybody who came before us that they remember how to use all the tools that we were once good at using. You know?