Ten Questions with Ian McDonald
Dufftown native Ian McDonald is The Balvenie’s Head Cooper. He oversees all coopering production and mentors two apprentices. Here he chats with The Balvenie Ambassador, Lorne Cousin.
Why did you choose to become a cooper and when did you start?
My best subjects at school were technical – woodwork and metal work. Coopering included both so I figured I would follow that path. It just seemed the natural choice. I started in April 1969 and have been at it ever since.
What changes have you seen in the cooperage over the last few decades?
There is greater emphasis on wood quality now, and on rejuvenation to maximize barrel life. Some machinery has been introduced to reduce repetitive strain injury on the staff, but most of the work is still done by hand. Most of the tools we use are very traditional.
Why is it important to have good quality casks in the production of Single Malt Scotch Whisky?
The wood quality determines the quality of the liquid, therefore the better the wood, the better the liquid. It’s especially important because the casks have to hold the liquid for a great number of years to mature and give it all the characteristics from the wood. So the wood really needs to be just right.
What type of casks do you generally work with?
We use mostly American oak ex-bourbon barrels and European oak sherry butts. I also repair the marrying tuns, which are small vats used to marry the whisky before it goes for bottling.
How do you source the casks?
We have a team of experts that travel around the world to inspect casks and purchase as required.
What is it that makes a good cask?
As I said before, the most important thing is that the wood is of high quality. But it also has to be properly seasoned and previously filled to prime the wood so the barrel has the proper characteristics. Different casks give a different taste and nose to the whisky.
Some casks are “toasted” (sherry) and some are “charred” (bourbon). Why is this?
When barrels are originally made they are fired inside to soften the wood to bend the staves, which preps them for us to steam them. The rules in America for making bourbon state that the casks need to have a heavy char whereas European butts for sherry only need a light toast.
What are the attributes of a good cooper?
You need to be good with your hands, not afraid of hard work and passionate about what you make!
You mentioned there are now two apprentices at the cooperage, why do you think it is important to keep this rare craft alive?
For maturation we will always need casks and therefore we will always need coopers. Because we have been at this so long at The Balvenie, we have a wealth of knowledge that has been passed down over the generations that we want to pass down to the next generation of craftspeople. So really, it’s a good investment to train our own coopers.
You are a piper, like me, so I have to ask you finally, what is your favorite pipe tune and of course your favorite dram?
Ha! I am not really a piper although I did go to lessons as a boy. I can get a tune out of the chanter and used to be able to play “My Home” and a few others but my favorite is probably “Highland Cathedral.” My favorite dram is of course The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year Old!