Nephin Whiskey

The way Irish Whiskey used to be.


Meet the last remaining Master Cooper in Ireland and hear how he's reviving a lost tradition.


John Neillt Nephin Master Cooper

I started work in John & Robt Harveys Cooperage DCL, in Port Dundas ,Glasgow in 1966 aged 15. My Father was a cooper there.

My first 3 months were spent painting barrels and loading the lorries. The next 3 months I was in the "Heading Shop" making new heads for the casks, next i was moved to the school for apprentices. At 16 my Father signed my indenture papers for a 5year term.

My first weeks pay was 3 pound 10 shillings. During my apprenticeship I covered all aspects of the trade - making 1 litre to 9 gallon pins & firkins and repaired butts & hogsheads. When my apprenticeship finished i went through an initiation ceremony called "Trussing the Cooper" where i was dumped in the shell of a partly made cask which contained paxarette and shavings and rolled around in this and then hosed down with cold water.  For this pleasure I had to supply the coopers with whiskey and beers!

After my first year qualified i moved to work for the numerous distilleries around Scotland becoming what we called a journey man cooper. This was what we called chasing the money. My favorite cask was the "Remake". This was when you would take a "shook", which was a pack of staves from an A/B and added 5 staves to make 55 gall 2 new heads and 6 galvanized hoops measured to fit by cold riveting and assembling together making this liquid tight.

We would be payed 2 pounds each and i was capable of assembling 60 of these a week, which was good money in the early 1970's. I remember working in Fishers cooperage in Glasgow and one guy used to bring his wife in to help him. He did have a big mortgage. A piece work cooper would repair 15-20 A/B a day depending on conditions (staves replaced & heads). A cooper would earn the title master when he passed his skills on and if he owned or managed a cooperage.

I think Machinery plays a major part of modern day cooperage as it takes away a lot of the physical side of the trade thus less injuries such as tennis elbow and frozen shoulder which happens when you are swinging a 4 1/2 lbs hammer for a big part of the day. Unfortunately, i wasn't afforded that luxury as i didn't work for to many employers who could afford the sums required to purchase this machinery.

I remember my first introduction to the cooperage, my Dad took me with him to collect his weeks wages one Friday and there was about 30 men hammering away at the barrels what an experience. I have many fond memories of sitting by an open fire at home with the family listening to my father tell us about his great greatgrandfather who was a cooper in Donegal and made casks along with JFK great, great grandfather.  Maybe that was another yarn but it is fun to remember.

I think a big change in the industry was pallets being used to stack casks in warehousing, instead of casks lying on their sides.  Another major change was the abundance of barrels in previous years but it is noticeable nowadays with the shortage of new wood that more distillers are maturing in poorer quality casks. 

I was delighted to join the Nephin family as they were so committed to doing things to the quality standards and in the traditional fashion which I remember fondly.


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