IN Bailic Park, on the approach to Midleton, is Alex Pentek’s gravity-defying sculpture ‘Kindred Spirits’ — 20 eagle feathers positioned in a circle to represent a bowl full of food. It commemorates the Native American Choctaw people’s donation in 1847 to the Irish people during An Gorta Mhór.
This act of charity, driven by an instinctive compulsion to reach out, founded a connection to Cork that has been cherished ever since.
It felt fitting to acknowledge this as I passed by on my way to Jameson Distillery to talk with Killian O’Mahony, recently qualified as a Cooper for the distillery — their first in 40 years.
At one time, Ireland sustained 11,000 Coopers. Not all were employed by distilleries; many made barrels for holding salted fish, powders, liquids and other provisions. Others made butter churns, milk pails, buckets, baskets, tankards and of course were boat and shipbuilders. But within a generation, this thrive of industry had all but gone. Today there are just five coopers on the island of Ireland.
Once upon a time, Irish whiskey was the world’s tipple of choice. But a century of civil war, economic depression and prohibition in the US (its biggest market), saw the Irish whiskey industry decimated, and with it the Coopers, their craft largely disappearing.
Killian O’Mahony, at only 26, originally from Blarney, now living near Midleton, has an old soul. There is an inescapable sense that he feels every ounce of the legacy he is carrying on his shoulders.
He spends his days working with his hands, swinging hammers in searing temperatures, but despite the assaulting cacophony he finds himself in, he is a picture of calm. But perhaps the most surprising of all is Killian’s story.
From a very young age, he fostered an interest in wood, breaking things apart and putting them back together to understand how it all worked.
“When I found out that you could make things from a tree — that was a revelation to me,” he says. “I know that sounds silly to say as an adult now, but that’s where it began for me.”
Killian looked into jobs and trades that would surround him with wood. The more intricate his thirst for knowledge became, the greater his interest grew.
“I quickly went through carpentry and cabinet making until I found furniture design and making. I went to Stiofán Naofa in Cork to study — I loved the course, I got to dive down deep into things I never knew existed, like the bending of timber and wood.”
For his first year gallery, Killian set to work designing and making three pieces of furniture.
“I based my whole gallery on the curvature of wood and what you could do with that.”
Ironically, all three designs were based around good aul drink!
“At that point I didn’t know anything about coopering or the distillery. I just found what I liked, got the materials and started to a craft a wine rack out of white oak, curving the wood into the shape of a wine glass. My tutors told me I shouldn’t be able to bend white oak to such severity, but I tried it anyway and succeeded.
“That piece symbolises the beginning of this journey I’ve been on for the past four years — when I discovered how far I’m willing to take my career in the exploration of wood and design. I knew from that point on, wherever I’d end up in the world, I was going to be working with wood for the rest of my life.”
At the end of Killian’s first year, he was given an email from one of the tutors.
“It was kinda secretly worded, about an opportunity for someone who was in the woodworking industry to go forward for an interview in a ‘specialised wood craft for Ireland’. My interest was piqued, and so started a three-month, five-interview-long process.”
At each stage, a little more was revealed about the role and the organisation.
With everything so secretive, the only person who knew what was going on was Killian’s girlfriend, now his wife.
When the news finally came that Killian had secured the position on Jameson’s first coopering apprenticeship in Midleton for 40 years, he had just one week to pack up his life in Cork and head to Scotland, where he would spend the first year of his apprenticeship.
“It was such a buzz, and I think that buzz lasted for the whole apprenticeship! I was just pinching myself, and I think I still am to be honest! Up until that point, I had only met one cooper my whole life. Suddenly, I was working in Scotland with 70 other coopers, thrown into this trade and told: here’s a hammer, here’s your apron, here’s your driver — let’s go.
“It was just straight in — no breaks, no jokes, just hard at it from day one.
“I’m swinging a 3kg hammer as hard and as fast as I can to drive down metal hoops. There’s only so much focus you can give to every swing of the hammer: there are bumps, bangs and bruises along the way, but that all contributes to the tools becoming an extension of your arm. When I pick up the hammer now I know where it is and I know where it’s going to strike — I know where everything is going to land so it frees up my brain to think about the next step.
“There’s a rhythm, it’s the only way I can really explain it. Every cooper makes their own rhythm, their own sound of hammer hitting the barrel and the driver — the Cooper’s Symphony!”
This juncture, where hands, skill and tools meet, is the essence of craft.
“A skilled cooper relies solely on the feel, the eye and the rhythm. Mistakes are inevitable,” says Killian, “but that is how you learn the Cooper’s Eye — the angle needed for the next stave; where the hammer’s going to land or where the strike of the adze is going to hit. That’s why I call it craft — because you feel it when you’re in it, you become part of what you’re doing.”
In the week before heading to Scotland, Killian paid a visit to his grandmother.
“I told her I had landed the job as an apprentice cooper at Midleton Distillery and she looked at me and started shaking her head. I panicked — did she not think it’s a good idea? She called me a ‘plonker’, leaned over, opened the drawer beside her, took out a photo and said: ‘That man is Bartholomew Ahern — your great great grandfather — and he was the Chief Blacksmith at Midleton Distillery until 1932!’”
What Killian had been blissfully unaware of up until then was a family lineage of coopers and blacksmiths working in Midleton Distillery going back several generation up until the 1940s — the point when the whiskey industry collapsed in Ireland.
Batt (Bartholomew) Ahern was Chief Blacksmith from the late 19th century until about 1932. It was the tradition of the coopers trade to pass the mantel from father to son. After Batt passed away, it his son, James, took the job.
Carol Quinn is the distilleries Archivist. Armed with only the information Killian had from his grandmother and the photograph, she searched the archive and found Batt’s old wage slips.
“He was one of the highest paid on site because he was so revered for his craft,” says Killian. “He made horseshoes, shoed the horses, but also made tools for the cooperage, barrel hoops — any kind of metal work needed to support the cooperage as well as the rest of the distillery. My cousin even has his anvil! I hope to put it back in the cooperage so I can work on it every day again.
“I love my job, every single day. I’ll be working with the barrels and I look across the yard and think that gorge is where my great great grandfather worked. It’s mind-blowing!
“My family legacy has been tied to Jameson and this distillery for 100 years. Now Irish whiskey is on the rise again, my family is back alongside the distillery.”
Much of Killian’s work is repairing barrels. There are 1.5 million of them at the distillery, each holding 200 litres. 7.3 million cases of whiskey flowed out in 2018, and 150,000 new barrels arrive into the cooperage every year — ex-Bourbon barrels from the US, used just once. Inspecting and repairing these valuable barrels is vitally important because 60% of the final flavour in whiskey comes from the wood.
But the process starts much earlier than this — 100 years earlier to be precise…
“For us to be able to harvest a mature white oak, it has to be 80-100 years old for American oak, 100-120 years old for European oak.
“Barrels that are being made now are being made from oak that would have been planted around the time that Batt Ahern was working in the distillery.”
One of Killian’s great hopes for the future is that there will be sufficient native Irish white oak, dair gaileach, growing in Ireland to harvest and mould into barrels to mature new-make spirit. One can only imagine how special a 30-year-old Jameson Irish Whiskey matured in barrels made from Irish white oak would be. This kind of legacy ‘thought experiment’, as Killian puts it, is big stuff.
“For me, it’s about looking after what we have, and taking care of what we are leaving behind for those coming after us. If I can build a barrel to last 100 years, a tree planted at the same time the barrel is made will be mature and ready for harvest when the barrel has come to the end of its use: creating a circle of sustainability.”
The process of building a barrel, from tree selection all the way through to charring, is a complex and technical one. Killian waxes lyrical about wood grain, cellular structure and medullary rays; the application of moisture and heat to bend strong timbers to his will — all of which adds to the flavour imparted into the whiskey. The trees, he says, live on long after they have been harvested.
“When the barrel is resting in the warehouse, it’s as though it is breathing,” Killian says. “The tree spent a lifetime growing, taking on nutrients and breathing.
“While the barrel is in the warehouse, through all the different seasons and temperature changes, the liquid inside is expanding into the wood and extracting lignin, vanillin and tannin from the wood.
“The whiskey is breathing in and out of the barrel, extracting those compounds, changing flavour, changing colour, changing taste profile. It’s as though the tree has been given a second life.”
Happily, there are plans afoot for a new programme of coopering apprenticeships.
“We need to reinstate the heritage for coopering, trades and traditional working,” says Killian.
“Irish Distillers have always recognised the need for the traditional way of doing things and thankfully there is a growing interest in coopering and the requirement for it.
“Dealing with 1.5 million barrels every year is a big task: the more barrels we need, the more repairs have to be done and more inspections. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the apprenticeship programme develops, but everyone is on the same page in that we do need more apprentices coming in.
“I feel like I’m carrying on the family legacy — my primary goal is to continue that legacy. I hope my wife and I will have sons and daughters, and, please God, there’s someone that wants to take up the trade. That would be huge for me, to pass the craft down to the next generation of my blood line; but I also want to make sure the craft is passed on in any way possible. I just want it to survive. I’m 26 now, but I know I am dedicating the next 40 years of my life to this craft. It’s all about passing on the torch and respecting everyone that has come before you and will come after you.”