Ger Buckley is the master cooper for Jameson. He is a fifth generation cooper and I think oak sap may run in his veins. While I met a number of incredibly dedicated crafts people on site, both at Jameson's Midleton and Dublin's Old Jameson distilleries, Ger is, I think, a role model.
Upon meeting Ger, I knew I was in for something special. His tools have been handed down for generations. His knowledge and techniques are steeped firmly in family and Jameson tradition. Working in an identical manner to his forebears, Ger and his small team of coopers are responsible for a full 50% of the taste and flavor that make Jameson Irish Whiskey the world's best selling.
Over generations, whiskey producers have discovered that White Oak is the wood for aging Irish whiskey. The casks from the United States, with charred oak interiors used one time for the aging of Bourbon, add a smooth and smokey flavor. The Sherry casks add a complexity and floral bouquet. Ger and his team inspect every barrel and quickly repair any leaks. As you can see in this time-lapse, Ger and Jameson Brand Ambassador Mary Ann quickly disassemble a cask and replace a stave, returning the barrel to service.
In the process, Ger showed us his hammer as well as one left to him by a prior Jameson cooper. He then tapped the chime off the top of an empty barrel and showed us the charred oak interior. Removing a leaking stave, he demonstrated use of a "Horse," a sort of stand up mandolin for shaping barrel staves.
He has compasses, sized for specific models of cask. Some are for the Ferkin, a locally made cask that his ancestors would have constructed, others for Bourbon casks made in America or Sherry casks from Spain. He uses several Adz made specifically for coopering. His work table has saws with grips specially offset to allow staves to be cut with a graduated bevel to prevent leaks. Ger also uses "dogs" for holding staves in place and double-handled knives for precise cutting. Every tool appears hand forged and he sadly told us that replacements are nearly impossible to find. These tools are stunningly beautiful.
While Jameson Irish whiskey takes a lot of its unique flavor from its pot still distilling process and smoke-free air drying of grains, no single element adds more than the casks. Many elements of production have been automated and modernized, but the coopers still work in the same workshop they have since the Old Midleton distillery opened in 1780, using the same tools and the same techniques. Tradition lives on in men and women like Ger Buckley. Seeing his intense love of his trade and Jameson's deep appreciation of his contribution gives me hope; Some things are still best done by hand, by people who know what they are doing and love doing it. Thanks to Ger, a lot of that goes into each bottle of Jameson.