Ger Buckley, Master Cooper of Jameson Irish Whiskey can disassemble and rebuild a cask in a matter of minutes. During his recent visit to Sydney, the fifth generation cooper showcased his craft at the Jameson Bartender Ball followed by a live barrel-charring demonstration. He also launched the new Jameson Select Reserve.
At the event, I had the opportunity to speak privately with Ger Buckley about his craft, the future and the new Jameson Select Reserve.
Ger Buckley, Jameson Irish Whiskey Master Cooper
As Master Cooper of Jameson, what does your role involve?
My specific role would be to control the quality of the casks we buy I would visit Kentucky to ensure our casks from America are top grade and I visit Jerez and Portugal as well.
Back in Midleton, my role is to ensure that every cask that arrives is of high quality. Every cask is examined by a cooper and some fail due to transportation. It’s important to maintain the standards as it pays off in the quality of whiskey.
Do you travel a lot in your line of work?
In the last two years, with events like this (Jameson Bartender Ball). I did one two years ago and after that, they wanted me to do more events and explain to people in the industry the importance of our casks. Up to 50% of the taste comes from the wood, so it’s a very important ingredient and we go to such extent to look after our casks, empty or full.
Maturation is regarded as one of the best in Midleton. Casks are always stored indoors so they never have weather problems or contamination. At end of their life, after 3 to 4 fills, the casks are still in top condition. We’re very conscious about how much we control the contribution of the oak. Quality control is the major component.
Tell us about the new Jameson Select Reserve.
With Black Barrel Select Reserve, we do a different process with the casks. We take the heads off the casks (tops) and we scrape off the loose char, re-toast at a much deeper level then re-char much heavier. You get a lot more toasted flavours and notes coming through and I supervise that directly.
Live barrel-charring at the Jameson Bartender Ball
We use two types of casks, sherry and American oak. They have two distinctive tastes, American oak has vanilla, sweetness, caramel toast notes and the sherry casks give that nutty, spicy dark fruit, Christmas cake flavour. There’s the unique small batch distilling process which happens once a year.
The Black Barrel Select Reserve is a blend of the two casks. There is no age statement. Some of it can be 16 to 17 year old whiskey, the youngest is 8 to 9 years. A lot of blenders are starting to choose whiskeys when they feel they’re right, rather than waiting for an age. Jameson Select Reserve is one of my favourites. As a cooper, I love that sweetness and vanilla taste.
What are some of the key changes that you have seen during your career?
The biggest change was in 1982 when we, as coopers shrank enormously. Half of the working population took out early retirement. We were left with nine coopers, now it’s gone to two. The good news is we have an apprentice for the first time in 37 years. And for the first time I can say, I’m not the last cooper. There’s another generation behind me.
The distillery has recently gone through a massive extension and doubled in size to 65 million litres of alcohol. It has been an amazing story, not just for Jameson but for Irish whiskey as a category.
Have some of the tools and methods changed over the years?
It’s been in my family for well over five generations. The tools I have are in my family, some are over 100 years old. I still use coopers hammer and axe. The methods haven’t changed, but what changed is the quality of the tools. Recently I saw a tool at the Metropolitan museum in New York. I get a kick out of looking at a tool that it’s 90 000 years old that I’m essentially still using.
Growing up, was there any pressure to follow in the family footsteps?
No pressure. Some of my fondest memories would be 45 years ago. You could go and visit your father in the cooperage. He would always take me around. When I open a cask these days and I get the aromas of whisky, it brings me back to my youth. Not that I was drinking but I was sniffing and smelling beautiful flavours as a boy. I still get a kick out of that.
It was just luck that a job came up when I was the right age, I was 17. A position hasn’t come up since. I’m the last of my family to be a cooper.
Do you have any sons?
I have daughters. My youngest is 12 years old. I don’t think wither one of them is going to be a copper because they’re girls. even though there have been girl coopers in the past.
Is that important to you?
The most important thing for me is that the trade is continuing in Ireland and that’s important because a lot of the tradition, vocabulary and expressions that are unique to Midleton will continue. For me, it’s the love of the tools and the love of the craft. And indirectly, the success of Jameson in countries like Australia means that my craft will continue.
Photography © by Kevin Burke for Gourmantic – Copyright: All rights reserved.
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