The role of apprentice is a dying art form. An apprenticeship allows a trainee to practice a trade while learning from a master craftsman. Historically, it’s mostly hands-on training but may include classroom training as well. An apprentice generally agrees to work for a certain number of years before he or she is considered a master craftsman themselves. Such is the case with barrel makers commonly referred to as coopers.
Cooper Graduation: The Blackening
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When a young apprentice cooper makes the passage from a four year apprenticeship to a full fledged cooper they must go through a process that hasn’t changed much since the 14th century. The ritual is known as “The Blackening” or “Trussing of the Cooper.”
Another episode of my Spirit of Speyside 2016 “in pictures” brings us to the Speyside Cooperage (Craigellachie – Moray) where we had the immense honor to witness a very rare ceremony : “The Blackening.” This year’s Blackening included not just one but two new coopers, Steven Langlands and Ian Sweeny who completed their four years of apprenticeship. As is tradition, the two were covered with flour, treacle, feathers and other dirty stuff by their colleagues. They ended their journey in the last casks they had worked on and were then rolled across the premises while their family and friends were watching the show from the gallery above.
Of course, after effort comes comfort and the guys were then offered a dram of the Cooperage’s own whisky, which has been specially bottled for them by a Speyside distillery (which identity has to remain secret… shhhh.)
Part 1: Understanding Oak Barrel Maturation – Know Your Casks
Part 2: Understanding Oak Barrel Maturation – Maturity is Not Age
Part 3: Understanding Oak Barrel Maturation – Location, Location, Location
As I was trying to make my way through this mess I was able to gather this group of pictures to share their tale. (Note to self: If you ever happen to attend another blackening again in your life – which is highly unlikely though – do remember to wear dark clothes AND shoes.)
If the pictures aren’t enough, you can watch a video of the 2016 Blackening and compare it to a 1954 version. Not much has changed but I think I would prefer the class of ’54!
Photos of The Blackening at Speyside Cooperage
Click on any image to see full size.
2016 Cooper Graduation: The Blackening
1954 Vintage Cooper Graduation: The Blackening
Here’s a 1954 version of an apprentice’s graduation to full fledged Cooper.