The barrels used to age alcohol are often front and center when talking about wine, beer and spirits. Images of cellars and rickhouses full of barrels are prominent on websites and in marketing materials, and many producers emphasize the advantages of the toast or char level they’ve chosen to use. However, the coopers who make and repair these iconic vessels work largely behind the scenes.
McDonald and his fellow distillery coopers are responsible for repairs and for “rejuvenating” (or reseasoning) barrel heads and staves. While the distillery embraces the nuances of barrel aging with its extensive line of whiskies finished in rum, Sherry and Port casks, that was not the case when McDonald took his apprenticeship there in 1969.
“When I started here, it was more important how the barrel looked cosmetically. Planed down staves, [sanded] ends, shine the hoops—it was a masterpiece,” says McDonald. “These days it’s more important how the whiskey reacts with the wood. The flavors come from the inside of the cask, not the outside. It doesn’t matter how it looks, it’s how it reacts with the whisky.”
“When I see all of the different whisky finishes in the shops, I feel a lot of pride knowing that I have played a part in the production of each bottle.” —Ian McDonald, William Grant & Sons
With the ever-growing interest in how barrels impart flavor, and the willingness of beverage producers to invest in new seasoning techniques and wood varieties, the appeal of this ancient art is understandable.
“Coopering is a rare craft that is incredibly rewarding,” says McDonald. “The skills you have are centuries old and the casks you repair really help to make whisky mature. When I see all of the different whisky finishes in the shops, I feel a lot of pride knowing that I have played a part in the production of each bottle.”
Here’s advice from professionals on how to become a cooper, a career that’s high-tech, hands-on and rooted in tradition.
You’ll start at the bottom
While there’s no singular path to becoming a cooper, the type of cooperage you seek will determine your first step. If applying for a job at a manufacturing cooperage, you’ll likely start out on the production line, which could involve cutting down the staves and barrel heads to be pieced together, or loading them onto trucks to be sent to wineries or distilleries.
Barry Shewmaker, cooperage manager at Independent Stave Company (ISC) in Lebanon, Missouri, started at the company 29 years ago, making barrels in an entry-level position. He moved into a management role a few years later.
“My path was basically if somebody quit or somebody was absent, I got the opportunity to fill in the void,” says Shewmaker. “As an entry level, it’s just willingness to adapt to learn different things. If you want to move further than that, like maybe move into quality control or [become] a supervisor, just maintain a growth mindset.”
Similarly, Heidi Korb’s father Russ Karasch “started out at the very bottom,” says Korb, who cofounded Park Rapids, Minnesota’s Black Swan Cooperage with Tuthilltown Spirits’ Brian Lee in 2009. “He learned a lot of his cooper knowledge by simply going around to all the cooperages in the U.S. and seeing what he could glean from them,” she says. “He’s like a walking encyclopedia for wood knowledge.”
Korb didn’t have formal training when she opened Black Swan, after graduating college at 22. That’s when she learned the ins and outs of the craft alongside her father. “I have been around barrels easily since I was about in kindergarten, so it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch,” she says.
Though the cooperage has grown tremendously from its initial two-person, father-daughter team, it’s still a relatively small operation, catering primarily to craft distilleries. Black Swan makes somewhere around 5,000 barrels a year, in comparison to ISC’s millions. For that reason, positions are limited, though Korb says there is a fair amount of turnover and opportunities to join the production line do come up.
“Barrel making is not easy work,” she says. “But it’s not difficult, if you work smart. Anybody can do it. You have to go into it understanding that, number one, almost all barrels these days, whether they’re whiskey barrels or wine barrels, are made from white oak. And white oak is extremely heavy. You’re going to be lifting barrels that are anywhere from 40 pounds to over a hundred pounds.”
Shewmaker agrees. He adds that prospective coopers should keep in mind that the way coopers are often depicted—standing in the glow of flames licking at barrel staves—isn’t the whole picture.
“It seems like [coopering is] thought of as dangerous and smoke-filled and sawdust on the floor and all that stuff that makes a really good picture,” says Shewmaker. “At the end of the day, the reality is that we’ve invested in new equipment and we’re engineering around some of those harder positions.”
Apply for an apprenticeship or internship program
A large part of McDonald’s job revolves around rebuilding broken-down, pre-used barrels, called shooks. He rejuvenates them, repairing leaks by hand so they can be aged in again.
McDonald says that, in his experience, coopering is “a very difficult craft to get into” if you don’t have family connections or know someone who’s already working in the industry. Historically, a career as a cooper required completing a years-long apprenticeship, where hands-on training is combined with learning theory. That’s still the case at some cooperages.
“At the age of 15 I applied to William Grant & Sons to see if there was any chance I could get an apprenticeship,” says McDonald. “I got the job and I’ve been here ever since.”
William Grant & Sons continues to offer apprenticeships at its Dufftown and Girvan cooperages in Scotland, and there are similar opportunities available through beverage companies like Diageo and Brown-Forman.
“Barrel making is such a unique trade and there are so few cooperages in the U.S. or even in the world. It’s impossible to find anybody with experience.” —Heidi Korb, Black Swan Cooperage
Internship and apprenticeship programs are also available at cooperages that deal in newly manufactured barrels, large and small. Shewmaker helped launch ISC’s Master Craftsman Program, an “accelerated program where you basically start when the staves are unloaded from the truck and you do every job in the plant for a couple or three days until you get a good understanding of what each job does,” he says. “You work all the way until the barrels are loaded on the truck.”
Be it as an apprentice or in an entry-level position, how you enter the business also depends on location and demand. Black Swan, for instance, doesn’t offer apprenticeships at its Minnesota cooperage.
“Employees are hard to come by as it is, so to find someone who wants to become a cooper as a career would be almost unheard of,” says Korb. “Training is all on the job and takes at least two years to learn most of what encompasses barrel making.”
Woodworking experience is helpful, willingness to learn indispensable
While a degree or prior experience isn’t always necessary for getting your foot in the door, certain skills will be useful. When Shewmaker is hiring at ISC’s Missouri cooperage, he gives top consideration to those with experience in welding or as maintenance technicians.
The best experience for coopering, however, comes when employees jump right in.
“We’ve trained all of our employees fully on the job,” says Korb. “Barrel making is such a unique trade and there are so few cooperages in the U.S. or even in the world. It’s impossible to find anybody with experience.”
Even so, she says that having some knowledge of woodworking is helpful “because then they have an idea of how to use the machinery that we have, and an attention to detail.”
“There are many different defects you have to look for in the wood that can cause problems down the road in the manufacturing process,” says Korb. “So, if you catch it right away you don’t have to deal with it three or four or seven steps down the way.”
“This industry is full of people that are willing to share their knowledge. You just have to be willing to ask.” —Darrell Davis, Jack Daniel Cooperage
When McDonald began at The Balvenie’s in-house cooperage at age 15, he’d already had some experience with woodwork and metal work in school. “Technical and practical subjects at school were always my favorite, and the skills I learnt have been really useful throughout my career,” he says.
However, many of the skills that have been most helpful to his career were passed down by the previous master cooper. “A willingness to listen and learn, as well as a good eye for detail have really helped,” he says.
Get to know the pros
Wherever you end up, be it in an apprenticeship or job on the production line, Darrell Davis says it’s important to take advantage of any opportunity for mentorship. “Simply learn how to learn, and be willing to learn from anyone,” says Davis, plant director at the Jack Daniel Cooperage, where he oversees 165 team members. “This industry is full of people that are willing to share their knowledge. You just have to be willing to ask.”
Davis says that tapping into the experience of those around him was crucial when he took his first job with Brown-Forman as a stave mill manager seven years ago.
“I have found people love to share their experiences if given the opportunity,” says Davis, who was previously employed in medical device manufacturing and worked in his parents’ machine shop growing up. “I have learned a lot about both the sawmill and cooperage processes from simply paying attention to those that have been in the industry for a long time, or at least longer than me.”