Scotland, one of the more affluent countries in Europe, is awash with distilleries and having visited several in my homeland of Ireland I wasn’t overly interested in touring another. However, I was interested in the upkeep and making of the barrels in which wine, whisky, and other spirits are aged, hence my visit to Speyside Cooperage, near the village of Craigellachie.
The cooperage is more concerned with the repair of barrels rather than the making of them and it is not surprising as there are pyramids of the wooden casks ready to receive some loving care.
Having watched a video of how the wooden barrels were made, my friends and I were shown into a gallery over which we could see the coopers at work.
The men, (and it is men as no women have applied to be a cooper), undergo a four year apprenticeship as the cooper’s job means the difference between a fine spirit and a bad one. Apprentices are paid a weekly salary, but once they are fully fledged coopers they are paid by the barrel.
The work is labour intensive, few machines are used, and the cooper needs a keen eye to spot flaws in the barrels which are initially marked with a white cross.
Once the barrels have been repaired they are inspected before leaving the cooperage. Any cask that does not meet the standard required is sent back and the cooper does not get paid for that barrel, therefore there is an incentive to do the job properly.
The casks are returned to the distillery from whence they came and it’s important not to mix up the casks as it will affect the flavour of the spirit which it contained. However, barrels that age bourbon in the United States are only used once, then sold onto the whisky industry.
We were treated to a nip of whisky before leaving the cooperage which had proven to be a real education and my ageing brain was in need of a good fish lunch. I was therefore very happy to find The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie where I enjoyed a fine plate of cod, mushy peas and chips.
There was a warm, cosy atmosphere in this pub, which offers accommodation and a real treat for whisky lovers. Check out their website as during the winter there is a special offer which includes the chance to taste the more expensive varieties of whisky, and there is an extensive collection from which to choose; or just imbibe the more well-known brands. (I’d opt for the former option rather than the latter.)
Leaving the Highlander Inn, my friends and I made our way to Craigellachie Bridge, probably the oldest iron arch bridge in Scotland.
Built in 1814, by the one of the leading Victorian engineers, Thomas Telford, the bridge crosses the River Spey, and is remarkable because of its stone towers and its long single arch which allows the raging waters to pass safely below. Sadly it is also known as a place where people have taken their own lives, but on a more upbeat note it is also the spot where newlyweds wish to be photographed in their wedding finery.
After a lovely stroll across the bridge we made a final stop at the Johnny Walker distillery where I saw my first glimpse of Highland cattle. The distillery called Cardhu Distillery is not only famous for the legendary Johnny Walker whisky but for Cardhu Cattle. The shaggy, horned cows have grazed the lands for years and were fabulous beasts, contentedly chewing the cud and completely disinterested in me staring at them.
Being a lover of stories I was thrilled to hear the tale of Helen Cumming who, back when families ran illicit stills on their homesteads, raised a red flag on her roof to warn neighbours of the presence of government excise officers. A more salacious tale was she hung out her red bloomers on the washing line as a warning, a slight deviation from the story, which I much prefer and would love to have more credence!
However, her daughter, Elizabeth, managed the Cardow Distillery for several years from 1872 and a statue of her carrying a red flag (in honour of her mother) accompanied by the Striding Man, very much the marketing icon of Johnny Walker whisky, is in the lovely grounds.
My friends and I enjoyed a whisky cocktail in the beautiful bar before heading back home after a day well spent immersing ourselves in the building of bridges, the making of barrels and the distilling of whisky, some of Scotland’s more lucrative industries.
Pour yourself a whisky and read my other blogs about my visit to Bonnie Scotland.
Lossiemouth, home to an RAF base is a lovely seaside town. Click on the link to learn more:
I love learning about history as it gives me an appreciation of the here and now. Please click on the links to discover more:
I visited Scotland last year (2022) exploring the Highlands, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Learn more about my discoveries there by clicking on the links.