People visit Scotland for many reasons. Some only get as far as Edinburgh or Glasgow, whilst the more adventurous travellers go much further - right to the top of the country or out to the east or west via some of the best roads (for views!) in the country – the NC500, the new North East 250, the A83 to Kintyre and the breathtaking snow route across the Cairngorms.
The beautiful islands of the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney with their stunning white sand and crystal clear blue water, oil rigs in Cromarty, dolphin watching at Chanonry Point, Royal castles, mountains, lochs and, of course, the newly, almost, confirmed inhabitant of Loch Ness, Nessie.
But probably one of the biggest draws for many people, and a whole tourism industry of its own, is whisky. Visitors to the 128 distilleries continue to climb every year breaking the 2 million mark back in 2018. People travel from across the world to taste the Scottish whiskys –each distillery different – proudly guarding their recipes, which are passed down through the generations.
Scotch whisky tourists bring in more than £60million every year - increasing each year as the number of visitors continues to grow.
We’ve visited many a distillery and followed the fascinating process of turning the Scottish water into whisky. End of tour tastings are a particular favourite of ours as only one member of the family actually likes the drink and he is always the designated driver! Thankfully, many of the distilleries now offer miniature samples of their drink for the designated driver to take home.
Hidden away in the heart of the Speyside Whisky Trail is one of the most important and fascinating elements of the whisky story, which you definitely won’t want to miss.
If you are a true whisky connoisseur then you probably make the effort to study the types of cask each whisky rests in. Vital to the taste of the finished beverage, which rests in the cask for many years, the art of creating and repairing these casks is a skill, which has also been passed down through the generations.
Speyside Cooperage, situated in Craigellachie, Scotland, is the only working cooperage in the UK with a visitor centre, running tours around the workshop followed by samples of their own label 10 year old single malt whisky.
Recommended by a friend, we decided to add the cooperage to our 2019 roadtrip. Travelling up from Ballater, we chose to stay overnight at Thistle Dhu B&B in nearby Glenlivet (yes there’s a distillery there!). Beautiful luxurious accommodation with stunning views and owners who cannot do enough for you. Breakfast was spectacular – all hand cooked by Andy & Pat whilst you sit at their kitchen table! Here we met a Dutch family, who come over every year just for the love of whisky!
Arriving early the following day at the Cooperage, we booked on the next available tour, priced at just £4 per person. We chose the 'Classic Tour', as the cooperage was at the beginning of a long stretch of driving (one of the drawbacks of roadtripping – you’re always on your way to somewhere else!).
After an interesting and very informative 4d video ( I actually listened so it must have been good!) we were taken onto a viewing platform high above the workshop. Thanks to a very knowledgeable guide, we saw the apprentices learning their craft by creating casks whilst the longer serving coopers repaired casks in need of some love.
Working on piece rate and paid for each cask repaired and ready to go back into service, the coopers work at unbelievable speeds moving the huge and very heavy barrels around the workshop with ease.
In 2017 four of the Speyside coopers competed for the Guinness World Records ‘Fastest time to build a 190 litre barrel’. They had a time of 7 minutes 30 seconds to beat whilst ensuring the casks were still watertight and industry fit for use. Under the watchful gaze of an official Guinness adjudicator and almost 300 visitors, cooper David McKenzie completed a barrel in a breathtaking 3 minutes 3.18 seconds securing him the record, which remains his. You can watch the record attempt on Youtube.
Now, if you’re a regular reader (hi Mum!), you’ll know for us it's always about the photos and I’m pleased to report that despite the viewing platform being behind perspex (probably due to the noise and potential dust) it didn’t stop us being able to get photos we really loved of the work going on below us. Luckily for us during the visit, the sun shone through the rear doors of the workshop lighting up the barrels and casting shadows and giving me my favourite photos of this year's roadtrip.
The tour was a very relaxed and enjoyable activity – we were able to wander around the viewing platform and the guide we had was happy to answer all our questions (we had loads!). It was a fascinating process and there was even the opportunity to put a mini cask of your own together! Sadly, as usual, we were too busy videoing and photographing to try this activity!
Inside and outside all you see are casks. As you drive up to the cooperage you see the ‘pyramids’ of casks in beautiful scenery waiting to either be repaired or to be shipped. Casks in the entrance, casks on the tour, casks in the gift shop (and lots of whisky!), unusual gifts made of oak from old casks and a tea room full of furniture made from (go on guess!) more casks! Casks to eat your picnic on, casks for the children to play on, casks everywhere!
Justifiably proud of their skills and making every effort to repair and re-use the casks, Speyside Cooperage are true masters of their industry. We were delighted to discover that the industry still attracts young people wishing to undertake apprenticeships and learn the skill. Must be a lesson there for other industries?
So, if you find yourself taking the Speyside Whisky Trail or, like us, just driving past on your way to somewhere else, take the time to visit the Cooperage and watch true craftsmen working on a traditional process, which has been taking place for over 5000 years. The workers use traditional methods and tools to repair and create almost 150,00 oak casks each year which are then used around the world (and of course in Scotland!).
Oh! and when we go back ( and we will be going back!) we will be taking the more expensive 'VIP tour', which takes you out onto the shop floor! Can’t wait!