Cooper’s life is a barrel of crafts

IT’S a craft that demands a unique set of skills, an experienced nose and eye, and an ability to bring an old-school proficiency to current production demands for volume and speed.

This is the art of whisky making … not the spirit, but the barrel. It’s the barrel that gives the whisky its colour, its flavour characteristics, its aroma and texture. It is the barrel – mostly French oak, but sometimes American white oak used in the making of bourbon – in which the whisky will be matured for at least three years. And it is the barrel that is the specialty of Patryk Oktaba, one of a select group in Tasmania charged with the way Tasmanian whisky is made.

Correctly, this group of individuals are called coopers. Their work is recorded back to Egyptian time. With more than 80 whisky distillers in the state, Oktaba is a busy man. For the past three years, he’s been at work for Callington Mill, a new distillery in Oatlands that embraces the original wind-driven flour mill and its surrounding cohort of sandstone buildings.

But Oktaba’s work as a cooper has until now been on the Shene estate at Pontville under an arrangement between well-known whiskymaker, Bill Lark, and John Ibrahim of Callington Mill. That is about to change: the Shene operations have been sold to Lark, and Callington will open a new barrel-making facility in Oatlands. The new cooperage will draw not only on Oktaba’s skills, but those of Mark Mundy, a mechanical engineer and machinist who’s largely responsible for creating the machines that help bring the cooper’s craft into the 21 century

. Something of a legend in the whisky business, Mundy developed the fit-for-purpose equipment that forms, shapes, shaves and cleans the barrels. Oktaba points out that the process is less about making barrels, but re-making them. “We actually buy used barrels, those with a history,” he points out.

“What we want is a barrel that’s been used for fortified wine – sherry, port or brandy, or perhaps bourbon or rum. “With that history comes a character, something that will bring subtleties of flavour to the whisky.”

A barrel expands and contracts in changing weather, which forces the whisky into the surrounding wood, and then back out again. “That enables the whisky to draw flavour from the wood,” says Oktaba. As he prepares to establish a new cooperage in Oatlands, he’s already weighing the demands of the new generation of whisky barrels. “We need both 30 and 100 litre casks, so that will determine the kinds of custom machinery we will need to fabricate,” he considers.

“We’re used to producing around 10 barrels a day, and we’ll need to be able to boost those numbers.” Whisky distilling – and its offshoots in gin – is a relatively young industry in Tasmania, but Oktaba believes his colleagues have learned a lot in a short time. “The kind of international awards we’re winning underscores that fact,” he says.

And he’s hugely optimistic about the future. “Considering how we’ve grown and where we’re at, a new cooperage to complement the output of the Callington Mill distillery is going to be a boon for us, and for Oatlands as a whole.”