Jameson Whiskey’s Master Cooper – Ger Buckley
A few evenings ago I the pleasure of sitting down with Jameson Whiskey’s Master Cooper, Ger Buckley. Jameson put on a special tasting event for the new Makers series, at one of Melbourne’s best the Boilermakers House.
Before I get into the interview with Ger, here is some history about “Coopering” and from what I found out from Ger an amazing history that has not only shaped Irish whiskey but other important events.
Back in old Britain, Scotland and Ireland family names where the jobs you worked for a living. That is where the common names like Smith (Blacksmith), Tailor, Potter and Cooper came from.
Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden, staved vessels, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper’s work include casks, barrels, and buckets. These barrels, in particular, were made to keep moisture in or out, depending on its contents. This skill involved a very accurate eye as one mistake and the barrel would be miss-shaped and not work.
Ger Buckley, a fifth generation Cooper is from a small town in Ireland called Cork. To describe Ger and his work I need to think beyond the word “passionate”, this is more his love and life. So before I even started to ask any questions, I was already absorbing all of this amazing history and knowledge about Coopering.
Instead of a dot point interview of questions and answers, just like our conversation, I decided to let it flow. I hope you enjoy and learn just as much as I did!
For those who don’t know, the difference between Irish whiskey and other whiskeys is in the triple distillation. By distilling the whiskey three times it becomes purer, has more depth of flavor and a smoother finish.
History shows a tax on malt barrels in Ireland, this made it more expensive for distillers. To stay in business many started using “virgin” barrels, creating a different flavor. Most Irish whiskey is made in a “pot” still and peat is rarely used in the malting process so that Irish whiskey has a cleaner finish as opposed to the smoky, earthy overtones common to some Scotches.
All whiskey barrels are made with an oak wood, the Irish love using American white oak. The barrel is made up of a few simple ingredients;
Staves are the heart of the barrel. Created from oak that must be straight, knot-free, and properly aged, they are shaped and fitted together in a precise pattern that will render the finished barrel water-tight.
Hoops are almost always metal; steel, copper, or unusually, iron. Typically, a barrel will have:
Chime (or Head) hoops at the outer edges of the barrel x 2
Quarter hoops about ¼ of the way to the center of the barrel x 2
French hoops between the Quarter hoop and the Bilge hoop x 2
Bilge hoop encircling the widest part of the barrel x 1
The chime is the beveled edge at the top, and bottom, of the barrel. It is made up of the ends of all the staves coming together.
Coopers cut the oak tree under any branches as they don’t want to get any knots in the wood, these will create leaks and weaken the barrel. The logs are then cut into quarters, then each quarter is cut into the staves. Using this method, the wood is very strong but flexible too.
One of the biggest events in American sports history happened due to Coopering knowledge and their cutting of oak wood. It happened in Louisville, Kentucky the home of the “Louisville Slugger” baseball bat. The bat was cut in the same way to stay strong in the wide end of the bat, they even labeled the bats a certain way so the player knew how to hold the bat, with the label facing up.
After the days of Malt taxes, most of Jameson’s barrels are not of virgin American oak. These come from three different sources; bourbon makers in Kentucky, Spanish sherry and finally, Jameson sources port “pipes” from Portugal. All these barrels contain different flavors when combined and matured with the whiskey, giving a more distinct color and flavor. Other ways of creating flavors, was though “charring” the inside of the wood, burning the natural sugars and creating sweeter flavors.
Holding the title of “Master” or “Head” Cooper, is one like many other artisanal jobs. To become a “Master” you have to gain all the knowledge of the job itself, the tools used and the most important part the “Oak” wood. The Oak has to be sourced from a sustainable forest. Knowing what a sustainable forest is and the also the bio-diversity of it too.
I asked Ger, what happens when he retires and who will take over? As I heard like many old-world industries and jobs Coopering was a dying art. Ger pointed out there were only two Coopers in Australia he could remember, both in winemaking. Luckily, he has an apprentice though who is in their third year. This sets the gap between Master and Apprentice at 37 years.
Nowadays, Jameson has created a new series called The Whiskey Makers Series, which comprises of three whiskeys that celebrate the people behind Jameson and their craft. Created collaboratively by Jameson Head Distiller, Brian Nation; Head Cooper, Ger Buckley; and Head Blender, Billy Leighton, the range gives Midleton’s craftspeople a unique opportunity to shine a light on their individual areas of expertise. Ger’s own whiskey, The Cooper’s Croze explores the influence that maturation in casks has on whiskey.
The Boilermaker House, Melbourne, Australia.
American OakBarrelsBoilermaker HouseCasksCooperDistillingGer BuckleyHeadIrish WhiskeyJameson WhiskeyMakeMaster