Whisky Focus - Interview With Ger Buckley Midleton Master Cooper - Method and Madness

Interview With Ger Buckley Midleton Master Cooper


6th March 2017

Interview with Ger Buckley Master Cooper at the Midleton Distillery.

Ger Buckley Master Cooper at the Midleton Distillery

Following the recent launch tasting of Irish Distillers new Method and Madness whiskey range in Dublin I got the opportunity to sit down with Midleton Master Cooper Ger Buckley and put a few questions to him about what his job involves at the biggest whiskey distillery in Ireland.

Cork man, Ger Buckley who began his career in 1977, is a fifth generation Cooper, a craft which back in the 1850's employed over 10,000 men in Ireland but today I believe there are only four people in Ireland who have the title Master Cooper. Ger follows in the footsteps of his own father, also a Master Cooper, a fact that he is extremely proud of.

William Morrison: As a Master Cooper at Midleton, what does your day to day role involve?

Ger Buckley: On arrival at the site my first job is to record all the stock movements from the day before, what was filled, what was emptied, maybe what was rejected, casks coming in from the US and Spain are all recorded in the stock book and then transferred into the computer.

In what form do the casks arrive at Midleton?

They all come in standing, they do not arrive in shook (disassembled) form anymore because we don't have the coopers anymore, they haven't arrived in this form since the big downturn in the 1980s when a lot of coopers finished, including my own father. Casks from the US now always arrive standing and Spanish casks have always arrived standing. We do an inspection of every single barrel that arrives on the site, one of the coopers, usually the other cooper will examine every single barrel, a visual inspection for quality, we do a cask report on every container that arrives.

In what way would a cask typically fail inspection?

We get very little failures, it would be maybe a head is broken or something, maybe a stave is broken, maybe its missing a hoop, the failure numbers are really small, for example last year out of about 130,000 casks we failed about 80 I think, it is really small.

I would guess they are inspected before shipping?

Yes, they know what we expect, we pay the most for our casks so they are the highest quality and when they arrive there should be no need for coopering really. We can get some failures at filling with new American casks that have come in, which nobody can see until you fill the cask and that's when we repair. There may be a little leak or movement in the head on transported of the filled cask but overall the quality of the casks we buy are so good and that is why we have so little coopers, we don't need big numbers.

What part of your job has changed since you first started out?

When I first started out it was all shooks  (disassembled barrels), so for my first 25 years, first thing in the morning we would build five new barrels in my first hour and then repair after that.

How much automation did you have then?

It was not automated at all, it is still not automated, we have two machines in our cooperage, we have a planer machine and a bandsaw and that's it. Everything is still done by hand, we still use the knives to chamfer the heads for example, so it is exactly the same way that I was taught by my dad. We don't have a big industrial cooperage with a lot of machinery, I have been in cooperages that have robots and stuff like that, we have none of that. When we get visiting coopers in they are pleasantly surprised to see that it has stayed very much traditional cooperage which I am quite proud of and in fairness to Irish Distillers and Jameson they very much want to keep it that way.

I know you import your American barrels from Kentucky and Tennessee and sherry butts from Jerez in Spain, do you ever get the chance to produce a new barrel from scratch with new wood and would creating a barrel from scratch be part of an apprenticeship at Midleton today?

When we did the Irish oak cask going on 10 years ago now, my boss said if we can get some Irish oak can we make casks with it. Nobody had any recollection of using Irish oak, we lost all our oak in Ireland over 150 years ago. Would it be possible, would it be very porous, would it leak, would it be very weak, nobody knew. We did manage to get our hands on some Irish oak and I made a 150 litre cask but the problem in the cooperage in the distillery was that I wasn't allowed to light a fire so it had to be a straight cask, I couldn't bend the staves, so I did make a cask completely by hand using a croze, I carved it out, it had hoops and everything else which was lovely and it is still in my cooperage and it has never leaked in the 10 years since I made it and that was the last time I made a cask completely by hand. That is something that I will do with my apprentice now, we will make some casks now, we may have to go off site to bend the stave and light a fire and pull them in because of the regulations on the site.

I know an apprenticeship lasts 4 – 5 years but how many years would you say it was before you knew you had mastered the craft?

I would personally think that it has to be over the 10 and on top of that there is a lot of debate of what is a master and what isn't in all ranks of society nowadays and lots of people are calling themselves masters. Traditionally in coopering to be called a master, benchmark wise you have to train an apprentice, in other words someone has to ask you to take on an apprentice because they valued your coopering skills and then you are officially a master because you had trained an apprentices, my dad trained 7 apprentices in his time.

Some coopers, like all trades, don't dedicate themselves enough, they are quite happy to repair and are not interested in putting it any further. For me, even still today, I am trying to look at new techniques that people work with in Syria, Estonia, Scotland, they achieve the same results but have got there very different ways using hand tools and its funny how you can change when you see things done. So I would expect someone to become a master after 10 years provided they were still passionate and dedicated to honing and learning and still working on their craft. So there is no guarantee that if you become a craftsperson that you become a master. For my apprentice, in time, maybe around 10 or 12 years we will see the master that he can make.

Would you say you are now at a level to be able to say what a whiskey will taste like in X amount of years just going by the type of barrel it will mature in, by that I mean type of wood, whether it’s been seasoned, chars of shell and/or heads?

What has happened over time is that I have become more and more involved working with my boss in cask selection, wood type and with a product like Jameson Black Barrel for example I go to Kentucky every year and what we do with that cask is I take out the heads in Kentucky and we char again, so we do a double char, its a much more severe crocodile char so we get a lot more toasted wood and a lot more sweetness and vanilla contribution. So it is nice for us on this side of the world to be involved in char specifications, be it light or severe, in toasting instead of charring, so all that side of it has become really important and I have got more and more involved in that instead of just buying casks in from America or just buying casks in from Spain, now we can be more specific with what we want.

If you could create a perfect single cask Irish whiskey for yourself to drink, what would it be? Single pot still, single grain, a blend? And what type of cask would it have matured in, first fill, bourbon, refill, sherry, Madeira, port or perhaps an innovative creation of your own to suit your own tastes?

I am very fond of pot still whiskeys, I think that is real Irish whiskey and Redbreast 12, Yellow Spot does it for me those are the ones I have on my shelf at home. In regards to cask type, what was really fascinating for me was to start using Irish oak, its a much richer grain, I often say to people if you watch the houses of parliament all the panelling is Irish oak and its a really rich type of grain.

I would make it out of new Irish oak with single pot still and I would be looking to have it after 12 years. I think Irish oak even though it a robur like Spanish oak its more like American oak, its very sweet, I do also love American oak. We did bring out a whiskey called Dair Ghaelach (Pronounced Dar Gay Lock) meaning Irish Oak which is finished but in the next 10 -12 years there will be a whiskey which has matured full term in Irish oak.

If you were to pick out a highlight in your career what would it be?

You know I still learn so much about forestry, growing oak and what goes on with the tree, and what tannins are used for on the tree, and how trees communicate. To see Irish oak used again in Ireland is one of the highlights for me.

Many Thanks To Ger.
Many thanks to Ger for taking the time to chat with me and for giving us an insight into the world of a traditional Master Cooper and having met Ger's apprentice, Killian O’Mahony later that evening in Midleton following a visit to the Midleton Micro Distillery I would say Ger has definitely passed on his enthusiasm and sense of pride in his craft to Killian who this summer will become Midleton's first qualified cooper in over 40 years.

The Method and Madness whiskey range will be available in the UK, France and Ireland (including Irish travel retail) from this month at the respective RRPs of €49, €69 and €79. The Method and Madness 31 Year Old, Single Cask, Single Grain will be available in the same territories from April 2017, priced at €1,500. Al the of the whiskeys will be available from specialist online whisky retailers such as Master of Malt
 

Method and Madness Irish Whiskey


Select a whisky to view tasting notes:

 

Where To Buy Whisky Online


Select a country for a list of specialist Whisky shops who delivers to you:

 

Whisky Focus



<<<Back to Whisky Focus for more Whisky News

Top Of Page

 
 Drink Safely   Add Your Site   Other Whisky Sites    Links   Contact Us 
 

© 2020 www.scotchmaltwhisky.co.uk All rights reserved.