The Precious Vessel.
There is an ancient energy in a man wielding a hammer and chisel to make a vessel. A vessel that will contain the most precious of liquids. Maybe twenty or thirty years will go by before that golden ambrosia can see the light of day. Because of this a Cask needs to be the most invulnerable of receptacles, whether it be Hogshead, Sherry Butt or a Bourbon Cask.
And yet when one is watching as a Cask is assembled, you cannot help but think that some magick flows through the Cooper’s hands. A Cooper is a craftsman. He can take twenty-five to thirty-five Staves, two Cask Ends, and some Hoops and make a repository that will shield whatever liquor is held inside from the elements for what could be sixty years or more.
The name Cooper comes from the germanic word Kuper which means Cask. And it in turn takes it’s name from the latin Cupa which means Tun or Barrel.
In the past a lot of Casks came came unassembled in a kit form. The Cooper got the Staves and the Hoops from the original Cask and his job would be to rebuild it in it’s original form. This is called rising the Cask. All the Staves are numbered and it is very important that they remarried with the Stave that sat alongside them originally. For a long time they sat side by side, bleeding into each other, getting comfortable, making a cosy home for bourbon to mature in.
Using a hoop to guide the Staves into their rightful places, The Cooper will then make sure the grooves or the Croze at the end of each Stave are in line with each other so that the Cask End will slip in easily. Once they are lined up, he can turn the cask on it’s head and see that the Croze are matching at the other end.
All the while the hoops are being expertly tightened and loosened depending on whether they are helping or hindering. They are merely used as a guide while the Cask is being built, but will find their permanent home later. As you watch, the metal hitting metal makes a satisfying echo that reminds you that you are watching a fragment of history being created before your eyes.
A Crumb knife can be used before putting the hoops into place for the final time. This knife is purely to scrap down the outside of the Barrel, to make it more charming, more appealing. As if the job the Barrel does isn’t magick enough.
Finally, the Hoops can be positioned into their unceasing job, keeping the vagaries of the external world at bay. The Rivets on the Hoops play an important part at this point. They must be lined up with the Bung Hole, so that in a dark Warehouse a man might be able to use touch to know which way the Barrels are lined up.
The Belly Hoop needs to be precisely one third down the Barrel for it’s final resting place, and when it is in the right position, then the Quarter Hoop is placed. The Quarter Hoop exists to tighten the Cask once more after the Belly Hoop pushes the Staves back out slightly. Lastly the End Hoop is placed. It must be the tightest and most secure Hoop. To achieve this, the Cooper used a Flogger which is a long metal rod of fourteen pounds of steel.
As well as working the Staves and the Hoops, the master craftsman, works with reed as well, to hammer or pull in-between the crevices that might naturally appear, guaranteeing the Casks resolve. Finally, he will put his personal mark upon the Cask so that generations to come will know who to thank for the golden liquid in their glass.
And now the Cask is complete, water and air pressure are used to test its fortitude, for the long devotion to come. By the time you drink the Whisky that you love, the Cask will have lived many lives, sometimes for generations. Next time you raise a glass, maybe raise one to the Cooper and his materials, without whom, you wouldn’t have your favourite spirit.
I would like to thank Donald Grant for showing me his craft. It was true privilege.
© Gabrielle Balfour 2016