A cooper is a skilled craftsperson who is responsible for making and repairing oak barrels used in the Scotch Whisky distillation process. The barrels used to mature Scotch Whisky are a key ingredient when producing some of the industry’s most iconic brands. As a Cooper you will work as part of a team in a fast-paced and physically demanding environment. Your main responsibility will be to ensure that the barrels meet the industry's standards for quality and integrity.
A Cooper Apprenticeship is a 4-year, work based, assessed programme. You will spend 3 years learning the history of coopering and developing the skills and techniques of the physical craft of the trade before moving into mechanical cooperage in your 4th year. Apprenticeship programmes are often accredited by the Cooperage Federation and you will be required to pass a Trade Test in the final of your apprenticeship to demonstrate competency which will assess your capability and craft.
Main duties and responsibilities
Typical duties and responsibilities of a Cooper include:
- Coopering involves the construction of barrels from scratch. You will work with different types of woods, including oak, to make barrels for the storage and maturation of whisky during the aging process. This involves a lot of precision work construct and repair barrels, including selecting and cutting the staves to specific measurements and fitting them together to form a tight seal using a variety of hand tools and specialized equipment and techniques to shape, assemble, and secure the barrels.
- Once the barrels are constructed and filled with whisky, it's important to maintain them properly. This involves regular inspections to ensure the integrity of the barrels and making necessary repairs. It also involves moving barrels around the warehouse as needed and stacking them securely.
- A Cooper maintains their tools and equipment and keep their workspace clean and tidy to ensure efficient operations.
- A Cooper is responsible for ensuring that the barrels meet the industry's standards for quality. This includes checking the wood for defects and ensuring that the barrels meet industry standards.
- Coopering is a team effort, and you will need to work closely with other members of the production team. This includes communicating effectively with distillers and warehouse workers to ensure that the barrels are moved and stored properly.
- Coopers must adhere to strict safety guidelines and procedures to protect themselves and their colleagues. They must also ensure the quality and safety of the whisky by following strict hygiene and cleanliness protocols.
- Coopers should have excellent communication skills as they need to liaise with other members of the production team, such as the master distiller and cellar master, to ensure the barrels are prepared to the correct specification.
- A Cooper should maintain accurate records of the barrels they construct and repair, including the wood source, barrel size, and maturation time, to ensure the quality and consistency of the whisky.
Working conditions can be physically demanding, with long hours spent standing and lifting heavy objects. You will be working in a warehouse environment that can be hot and humid. Safety is a top priority, and you will need to follow strict safety protocols to prevent accidents or injuries.
Skills and experience
To work as a cooper in the Scotch Whisky industry, the following skills and experience are typically required:
- Typically, a cooper would require a minimum of 3-5 years of experience in barrel-making or a related field, along with a demonstrated track record of producing high-quality work.
- Outstanding woodworking skills and the ability to use a variety of tools to shape, assemble, and repair barrels. A Cooper must have a good eye for detail and be able to work with precision to ensure the barrels meet industry standards.
- Physical fitness, as the work includes lifting and manipulating heavy barrels, and working in a standing or crouched position for extended periods.
- High levels of attention to detail and ability to work accurately, ensuring that the barrels constructed and repaired are of the highest quality and meet industry standards.
- A strong focus on safety. Working with tools and materials in a production environment requires a Cooper to follow safety protocols and procedures to prevent accidents and injuries.
- A cooper should have good communication skills, as they must liaise with other members of the production team and work collaboratively to ensure that the barrels are prepared to the correct specification.
Some employers may require formal training or certification in coopering, although this is not always necessary. Apprenticeships are a common way to learn the craft of coopering, and there are various vocational training programs and courses available. In addition you should have previous experience in coopering, woodworking, or a related field. Experience in the whisky industry is a plus.