The wonders of the warehouse


IN IN
15th September 2021 / by Hannah Thaxter


Discovering the wonders of the warehouse, guest writer Hannah Thaxter spends a day learning how to correctly roll out the barrel, remove bungs, fix a leaky head, calculate a spirit reduction, and what it feels like to get drenched in Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2013. 

Warehouse 12 - 9.15am


“Even if I was blindfolded I could tell which warehouse I was in,” says Jay (John Paul Doherty). He’s a Derry man who washed up on these shores some 16 years ago. He’s guiding me through the warehouses behind Bruichladdich; row upon row of casks, silently and stealthily imparting colour and flavour into the precious liquid they cocoon. 

I feel like I’ve entered a church. It’s dark, quiet, meditative, I feel I should whisper.

It would take a while before my nose reached the perceptive peak of Jay’s but there’s no doubt each one has a different scent – even more striking when his colleague Iain MacLean gives me a tour of the other warehouses.

Warehouse 13 smells like sawdust and sherry trifle. Warehouse 14 next door is earthy and spilled wine – like the end of a cork soaked from a vintage Shiraz. The dunnage warehouses in Port Charlotte smell of toadstools and compost. After last nights rain their earthen floors give off a musky scent which tickles the back of your throat but, above that, there is the sweet aroma of fortified wines and sawn wood. I could be in an old sherry merchants shop in Càdiz 

If warehouse 13 is a church then the giant concrete metal-racked 10,000 cask hangars recently built at Coultorsay are cathedrals. The 150-year-old, low, dark, dank stone-built 150-year-old ones at Port Charlotte are the inner sanctums. 

“We’re like the guardians of the whisky,” says Jay with a grin that never stops all day. 

Team work makes the dream work


Im in warehouse 12.  Ive got my steel toe-capped boots on and a thick pair of protective gloves but I have rocked up nearly an hour and a half late for my shift, which should be from 8am to 4.45pm. The odd timings give the warehouse workers an early dive on a Friday. My lateness wasn’t deliberate but I was prepared to take both the blame and the flack.  Stewart (tanker driver/warehouseman) duly obliged.  

“What time d’you call this?” he tapped his wrist, laughing. “You’ll have to work through your tea break.” 

There’s plenty of banter in the warehouse. This band of brothers – whose job is a mix of barrel-rolling hard physical graft, science, maths, geometry, cooperage, lifting, turning, checking and counting – are a tight squad. They need to be. They need to have each other’s backs. There’s plenty of potential for miscalculations that could be personally dangerous or professionally expensive. 

I wouldn’t want the responsibility of adding just the exact amount of water to the irreplaceable contents of casks whose combined worth runs into millions. These guys know the value of the stock they control; they take it seriously.

Learning to read the labels


Today’s task is to empty the contents of 78 casks of spirit and ‘marry it” together – meaning mix it up in a big steel tank in Warehouse 12. The casks are a mix of sizes and previous contents – bourbon, white wines, red wines, sherry. Some are first fill, some second, some young spirit, some older. It’s bewildering at first, but John (Evans) shows me how to interpret the labels on the cask which tell me what’s in it and what has gone before. Is it a first fill cask (no markings), second fill (white on the barrel head) or third fill (green-ender)? The first lot we empty are BOC – BO for Bourbon cask, A,B,C for third fill.  

How do they know which barrels to choose for this mix? Thats down to Adam Hannett, head distiller. Its his knowledge and expertise which has led to this selection of specific casks. The warehouse team get a “dump sheet” to work from. It’s literally a sheet of paper with the cask details on and where to find them in which warehouse. Ensuring the right casks have been lifted is checked and double-checked. Theyve already removed them from the stows (the places where each cask is placed for maturation). 

We set to work getting the casks rolled over a trough with bungs up – 10 at a time – and remove the bungs with a special type of corkscrew device. Roll them over and the liquid starts to flow out, along with bits of charcoal – the insides of those charred casks. The smell is divine and the glug of the liquid coming out is oh so satisfying.  

Roll, unbung, turn, empty, lift up, rebung, remove. John shows me how to roll the casks properly to get them to line up with the bung in the right place – he’s brilliant at it, and I’ve got a glow on before he’s even broken sweat. 

It's all in the timing


Casks are stored bung upwards (less chance of leaking) but how do you get them all to line up along the racks or skeeds bung up without having to manipulate them all into place? Work out what position the first one needs to be in, to ensure it lands bung up.

This gets critical if, like Seumus Brown, you are 11 stows up in warehouse 14, receiving casks off the stacker which is operated from the floor far below.

The trick is to use the end of the cask as a clock face. The second cask needs the bung set 20 mins later, the next at 20 mins after that. So, if the first started with the bung at 12 oclock, the next should be at 20 past, then 20 to etc. For a filling, they’ll use a number of barrels of the same type, therefore the same girth.  So if the first barrel bung lands at 10 past then its fastby 10 mins. So youd send the second at 10 past rather than 20 past, half past instead of 20 to, and so on. Simple! 

Iain does the calculations


When our dumped spirit has gone through various filters (to get rid of those charcoal bits and other impurities) and is mixed, Iain sets out the workbench like a science laboratory.

Thermometer, hydrometer and a thick book of calculations – take X temperature and Y hydrometer reading to give alcohol at Z strength. There are various measurements to be made and complex calculations to do – first how much liquid to take off to leave enough for the amount Adam has specified he wants for bottling (details on another sheet) and then how much water to add to get the remaining litres of whisky to bottling strength. 

First we have to check three samples of the ‘married’ liquid (to ensure it’s consistently mixed) then keep reducing the strength with some water (trial and testing here) until the correct ABV is reached for the sample. Nothing will happen to that tank full of mixed whisky until Adam has tasted and approved this sample. 

Everything is precise. It’s calculated and checked. “You can always add more, but you can’t take it out,” says Iain. 

Repair as Required


Unexpected things happen which break the steady rhythm of the day. Iain finds a leaky cask (the head doesn’t quite fit). The gap is filled by splitting a piece of dry spongy reed, which is twisted and rammed into the space around the head with a kinching tool. It’s bizarrely satisfying work – maybe even more satisfying than pulling a bung out. 

A blood tub (a very small barrel) is discovered to have split its hoops. These small casks are quite rare now and Iain has to search for another empty one from which to pinch a hoop or two as replacements and squeeze those staves back together using traditional cooper’s tools of hammer and driver. 

Cask Strength


As we’ve gone along samples of the spirit from each batch of casks have been caught in a glass and we’ve looked at the colour, smell and taste. Adam wants the warehousemen to know as much as they can about the spirit they’re dealing with

Jay pops a drop or two of the Octomore spring water used for bottling – “some of the purest water on the planet – into the cask strength whisky and shows me how it releases and separates the oils. The flavours intensify and seem to explode. I liken it to crushing spices in a pestle and mortar. “It’s like tearing a basil leaf,” says Jay. 

He has a beaming smile and so do I. I’ve rolled barrels, I’ve timed my fill badly and let the petrol-pump type cask filling thing squirt foaming Port Charlotte Islay Barley all over my jeans (there are worse things to be drenched in!), I know how to spin a barrel round and roll it just in the right way to get it bung up – I might not be able to achieve it every time, but I get the principle!

Warehouse 12 - 4:45pm


By knocking off time I don’t really want to go. Maybe it’s been the good craic, the physical exertion of the day, Stewart’s rock anthems belting out, or just breathing in all the spirit, but I’ve had a belting day. 

I ask Jay if he likes his job. 

“A warehouseman should always go to work with a smile on his face, and a bigger smile going home,” he says.

It’s physical, it’s satisfying, it’s tantalising. Is there room for a woman among the casks in the warehouse? I can’t help noticing there’s a current vacancy…

 

 

Further reading

Why do we insist all our warehousing is on Islay? Warehousing philosophy >

Find out more about our cask types  Casks casks casks >

More about maintaining leaking casks with a kinching iron and “flagging” reed >

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