Salaries from: £25,000+

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.

Role Description

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. A Cooper maintains their tools and equipment and keep their workspace clean and tidy to ensure efficient operations.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Physical fitness, as the work includes lifting and manipulating heavy barrels, and working in a standing or crouched position for extended periods.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Qualifications Required

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.

Did you know?
  1. Coopers have been an integral part of the whisky-making process for centuries, and the craft of coopering has remained largely unchanged over time.
  2. The majority of coopers in the UK Scotch whisky industry are based in the town of Dufftown, which is located in the Speyside region of Scotland.
  3. The oak barrels used in the Scotch whisky industry are typically made from American white oak or European oak. The type of wood used can have a significant impact on the flavour and character of the whisky.
  4. Coopers play a crucial role in ensuring the quality and consistency of Scotch whisky, as the barrels used in the maturation process can account for up to 70% of the final flavour.
  5. The job of a cooper is physically demanding, and it can take up to 5 years to train a new cooper to a high standard.
  6. The traditional tools used by coopers include a variety of specialized axes, adzes, and planes, which are designed to shape and manipulate the wooden staves used in barrel construction.

If you're interested in becoming a cooper in the Scotch whisky industry, here are some resources to help you get started:

  1. Many distilleries offer apprenticeships or training programs in coopering, which can provide hands-on experience and a pathway into the industry. You can check with your local distillery or cooperage to see if they have any apprenticeship opportunities available.
  2. There are various vocational training programs and courses available in the UK that can teach you the skills required to become a cooper. Some popular options include the City and Guilds Diploma in Wood Occupations, the Scottish Qualifications Authority National Certificate in Coopering, and the Worshipful Company of Coopers Certificate.
  3. There are several coopering associations in the UK that can provide guidance and support to those interested in the craft. The Worshipful Company of Coopers and the Scottish Cooperage Association are two examples.
  4. There are many books and online resources available that can help you learn more about coopering and the whisky industry. Some popular titles include "The Cooper's Craft" by Kenneth Kilby, "The Art of Coopering" by Peter Jones, and "The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom" by Alfred Barnard.
  5. Networking with other professionals in the industry can also be a valuable way to learn more about coopering and gain practical experience. Attending industry events, joining online forums or discussion groups, and reaching out to distilleries or cooperages for advice and guidance can all be helpful ways to connect with others in the industry.
Related Case Studies

The Scotch Whisky Association

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