THE CELTIC GIFT TO SPIRITS
Sometime in the first millennium BC, the Celts of the northern tribes of Europe invented the wooden barrel. Previous to this there has been documentation of the use of hollowed out logs and loosely slatted buckets most likely covered over by animal skins. The ancient Celts were avid traders and, as a result, most of western and northern Europe was flourishing with the exchange of ideas, skills, languages and artwork. In this environment, it is not surprising that innovations occurred and spread rapidly throughout Europe.
Among other innovations needed to create something as technologically advanced as the barrel, was iron edged tools that were specifically developed to cut and shape the harder European wood of the north. The Celts had ample resources of giant hardwood and would split the staves out of one bolt, then shape them with heat before securing them together with multiple saplings or willow boughs that would be soaked and stretched. It has also been suggested that the Celts infamous love of beer and wine drove them to develop the smaller bunghole design, understanding that the less contact with air the beverage had the longer it would last. Their methods were so effective that barrel making has changed very little over the thousands of years it has been in use.
The Romans, who were expanding into Celtic territory by 350 BC, were the first to document these barrels. Most famously, the Gaels (as the Celts were called by the Romans), are recorded by Julius Caesar, as using them as weapons against the Romans:
“The townsmen filled barrels with tallow, pitch, and dried wood; these they set on fire, and roll down on our works”
The Romans adopted this Celtic technology and the wooden barrel eventually replaced the amphora as the main container for storage and transportation. Wooden barrels were better suited for extended trade and travel and by the 1400s coopers were in such demand to both build and repair barrels that the first cooper guilds were formed. In fact, maritime law forbade the sailing of any ship without a cooper. One such ship, the Mayflower, was delayed it’s original sailing date in July because their cooper decided not to go. The formation of guilds effectively helped to standardize barrel sizes and improve the quality of barrel production that in turn helped to standardize pricing. Most coopers organized themselves into areas where they could then be easily located. These areas became variably known as “cooper” or “cowper” and still bear these names today.
By the middle ages, everything was stored in barrels, from food to beverages to raw materials for trade. Barrels could be found everywhere and so it was a natural progression to store and transport whiskey in those same barrels. But the connection between flavor and maturation in barrels had not yet been made and so whiskey was stored in all kinds of barrels, including those that had previously housed pickled herring and salted pork. At first, it was not understood that oak made for the best vessels and coopers used all kinds of wood, hard and soft, to make barrels. In Greece there is a wine that was stored in pine wood barrels. The barrels had to be sealed with pine resin, in order to remain water tight but resulted in the wine taking on the flavor of the resin which has given it’s name “Retsina”.
Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that whiskey aged in oak barrels (often previously used for wine, sherry, rum or cognac) took on a nicer character and flavor. Oak is a hard wood grown in a temperate climate. The best possible oak to make barrels will have aged slowly in slightly stressful conditions, such as higher altitudes or rougher weather, creating tighter age rings and general wood grain tightness. The best age to harvest the trees at was 100-200 years, any younger and there would not be enough tree girth to make it worthwhile, too old and there was a risk of defects in the wood. A defective tree was a waste of time and money and care had to be taken to avoid them. Oak that was located near where there were farms was often avoided because metal bits such as nails or horseshoes nailed to the tree for luck would have been absorbed into the tree, thereby ruining the wood and often the tools used to cut the tree. Other areas that are fastidiously avoided are places were WWI and WWII took their toll as bullets and shrapnel still lay buried within the surrounding woods. Because of the necessity for selectivity, European oak was quickly exhausted and each nation quickly began to guard their resources.
With the discovery of the Americas, came a new type of oak onto the market. American oak contains more tannins than European oak and imparts a stronger, sweeter flavor. The main difference, however, between European oak and American white oak is their cellular structure. The American oak contains tyloses, which creates a barrier for liquids. European oak needs to be split to create staves in order to remain water tight, but American oak can be sawn, meaning each tree has the potential to yield more usable wood.
The art of coopering still exists today because it is an undeniable fact that whiskey, wines, and other alcohols, are best aged in oak. At the beginning of the 20th century, barrels as containers were gradually replaced by metal, paper, plastic and cardboard. The amount of coopers dropped drastically and began to settle around areas were wine and whiskey production were focused. But as the age of machines continued, more and more coopers lost their livelihood to robotic factories and the cheaper industrial versions of the traditionally handcrafted Celtic design.
In this century, master coopers are a rarity and the astonishing skill and artistry that they bring to this ancient technology cannot be duplicated. Whiskey is better for the centuries of learning and traditions that have artfully crafted it. At Nephin Whiskey we believe that the Master Cooper is an important part of that craft and is something to be celebrated and maintained.