Next in our Meet the People series, we speak with Ger Buckley, Jameson Master Cooper and one of the two remaining Master Coopers left in Ireland.
Ger Buckley speaks to us about his craft, the changes he’s seen over the years, how the new Makers Series came to be and the whiskey that pays tribute to his craft, the Cooper’s Croze.
You started your cooperage career at Jameson at the age of 17 and you’ve been Master Cooper for 16 years. Can you tell us a little about your role?
Initially, I did all the repairs in Midleton after my colleague would have inspected the casks arriving for defects. When I got the job as Foreman Cooper, I asked if I could still do repair work. I enjoy it, especially with the 500L sherry butts. I still get a kick out of that.
My role today is to bring all the stock sheets up to date from the activities of the day before. In the last couple of years I’ve been spending a lot of time with my apprentice, Killian O’Mahony. I’m involved in his training to give him an all rounded overview of all aspects of cooperage. I also do a lot of education in regards to people coming to the distillery, once or twice a week. We have coopers arriving, bartenders and people from Pernod Ricard. It can range from an hour to 2.5 hours depending on how much detail they want. That has become more and more my role now. I can also be in meetings regarding future things and trials going on at the time. Every day is completely different. There’s no set routine but I don’t get enough time in the cooperage any more to do repairs.
As 5th generation Cooper and one of only two Master Coopers left in Ireland, has the role changed much over the years?
The role has changed enormously because when I first entered the distillery, the sales of Irish whiskey were at a low end. From the mid-90s things started to change and from the mid noughties, Jameson took off. With the success of Jameson, we now have an apprentice, and a second apprentice. Success and sales bring stability in your craft and growth in the role. The strength of Jameson had an effect one everything.
From my point of view as Cooper, whereas I always used to say, I’m the very last, there will be no more coopers, now I can say there’s another generation coming. And that’s really good for me to say, particularly from the point of view of the generations before me. It would have been heartbreaking if I couldn’t have passed it on. Out of legacy to them, what I feel passionate about is handing on the Irish way of doing things, like Irish vocabulary for tools and barrels and Irish methods. That to me, with the trade going to continue on, I feel that I’ve honoured my father and grandfather.
Jameson has recently restructured its portfolio with the Makers Series, Heritage Whiskeys and Deconstructed Series. Can you tell us a little about the Makers Series.
The Makers Series came about 4 years ago in appreciation of the craft behind the business. We were approached to produce our own whiskey and get our own personalities into it.
For the Distiller, it would be about the distillate and his art of distilling. Brian Nation called it Distiller’s Safe. The safe is a huge glass and brass box that was used to put samples from heads and tails. Traditionally customs would have a lock on the safe as would the company so that no one could get to the whiskey without a customs official present. Brian’s whiskey has one type of barrel, three types of distillates, standard grain, very small batched grain and very heavy pot whiskey. It’s about the distillate so it’s a younger whiskey.
Blender’s Dog is Billy Leighton’s whiskey. He describes it as the three basic elements to work with, the distillate, the barrels and time. It’s a combination of all three to work harmoniously to produce a whiskey. The dog is a copper tube that drops into a cask to get a sample. Traditionally warehouse men came up with the device, and called it a dog, so they could pretend they were talking about a real dog. Blenders took up that tool as well. It’s a bit younger than my own whiskey.
Mine, Cooper’s Croze, has standard grain made in column still, light pot whiskey and medium pot whiskey. It has four types of casks, brand new virgin American oak for the sweetness, first fill American cask, second fill American cask to get some balance and not go too oaky, and oloroso sherry butt. One thing I like about the oloroso cask, that size, shape and dimension is unchanged since Roman times. The only difference is that they had timber hoops, now we have steel. It has a high proportion of pot whiskey, triple distilled and the malted and unmalted barley. Mine is the oldest of the three because it’s all about oak so it has to spend more time in the cask.
Why did you choose the Cooper’s Croze tool over any other?
Of all the tools I had, the croze was the most basic. I must have it to cut a groove at the top of the barrel so that the lid would fit into it. That tool has gone back in history a long time over 4000 years. The other main reason, the one I have in my workshop, my dad had it all his working life and he wore it all down one side, and we reversed a piece of it. I’m wearing down the other side. Between us, we’ve had that croze almost 80 years. It’s a piece of history. I should lock it away, there’s so much history in it but I still use it.
How would you describe the flavour profile of the Cooper’s Croze?
It’s harder for me to get all the flavours from the whiskey because I work with oak all day long. Having said that, on the initial nose, you get that sweet vanilla smell, floral notes towards the end from the sherry cask. On the taste, initially you get that sweetness, the vanilla, then pepperiness from the pot still and sherry cask. When you add one drop of water, the sherry cask influence opens up. You get the dark fruits, plums, nectarines and green apples. It’s very smooth and very drinkable. It’s a higher ABV at 43%. When I drink it, I feel it’s me in a way. It’s very laid back, smooth, got a lot going on. Every time I have it I ask myself, does it feel an extension of myself, and to be honest, it does.
We all favour our own whiskies but the three of them give a timeline of whiskey from Brian’s with the distillate, my own with the wood and Billy with the blend.
In your opinion, what does the restructure bring for the brand?
I see it as an evolvement to another level. The Maker Series is all about craft people behind the brand. Consumers want to know about their whiskey and people behind the brand. People at Jameson are constantly innovating and developing. One of the core values of the original Jameson was innovation and experimentation. This is just another step in the road.
How do you enjoy Cooper’s Croze?
If I’m outside in the sun having Cooper’s Croze, I’d have a cube of ice. I don’t believe there’s any rule of how whiskey should be drunk. If I’m drinking at home, I always nose my whiskey then I taste. Once I’ve done that, I add one or two drops of water. I also like a bit of rich Irish milk chocolate with my whiskey. Socially, I’m not afraid to have it in a cocktail with ginger ale and squeeze of lime, or classics like the old fashioned and whiskey sour.
Do you have a story about your whiskey that you’d like to share.
It’s an incredible honour to see your name on a bottle of Jameson. The biggest kick I got out of it was when I went into a bar where they didn’t know me and asked for my own whiskey.
Any closing comments?
I think this is the dawn of a new era, a very exciting era of whiskey making. Everybody is making whiskey better than ever. We can scientifically test things so much better. The level of expertise, care and attention to detail is higher than it’s ever been. That might explain why the growth in whiskey drinking has gone so high. It’s really exciting times for the whiskey business.
In partnership with Pernod Ricard Australia. Photo Credit: Supplied.