The old and modern art of the cooper

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We’ve just put together our annual barrel edition at the magazine and that meant I’ve been getting in touch with several different coopers, talking about the barrel market and also digging through my cooperages photos. If you’re curious about the wine barrel market, some interesting trends I reported on is that American oak barrels are getting much more expensive because of the surging popularity of Bourbon and other whiskeys that age in American oak barrels. This is quite a change for the wine industry as American oak barrels have traditionally always been a cheaper alternative to French oak barrels.

In going over some of my photos I’m reminded how cool it is to visit a cooperage. After entering the workshop, the first thing you’ll notice is the wonderful smell of toasty smoke that’s tinged with scents of vanilla, a bit of baked bread and whiskey. While there are several areas of the production process that have been modernized with machinery, many elements of barrel making require the work of skilled craftsmen. There are tools and tasks of a modern barrel workshop that are the same as they were 300 or 400 years ago.

Last year I had a chance to tour the Nadalie USA cooperage in Calistoga. It’s one of several cooperages I’ve visited, and it’s a good example of how barrel making is still in many places a combination of machine precision and craftsmanship.

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