The dry sound of hammer-blows against iron can be heard from outside. Saws whine in the background and a pungent smell of oak wood and sawdust hits you as soon as you step through the door of this artisan workshop.
I ask for Rafael Cabello, one of those rare young artisans who have bucked the trend when it comes to the shortage of young craftspeople continuing family trades in Andalusia: «He’s in the batiero«, they answer, pointing towards the end of the workshop where some fires crackle.
The batiero is a small, dark room where the temperature can reach 70ºC. There are three fires on which the barrels are “sculpted”. It is a kind of living representation of Vulcan’s Forge by Sevillian painter Velázquez, except that these artisans are not blacksmiths but coopers; they are dressed in black, they are much younger, bearded and tattooed. They are the living embodiment of the new generation of barrel-makers who have taken the reins of a craft dating back over 500 years – family businesses transformed into global companies that thrive on exports: Casknolia sells barrels of up to 500 litres to more than 28 countries around the world.
“Here we play with the water and the temperature of the fire,” explains Rafael, who learned the trade from his father, whose image he has tattooed on his arm alongside his daughters. “This is the most striking part of the barrel-making process. We want the wood to be more pliable. Oak is one of the hardest woods there is. When it’s tempered and the wood bends, we cool it down. And it will stay that way forever. Did you know these barrels can last for a hundred years? ” And with that said, he returns to one of the three fires that each of his barrels passes through and shakes a handful of sawdust over them, stoking the flame which grows by a couple of metres.
The ceiling is completely obscured by smoke and fire. The two coopers who occupy this small space appear to be performing a dance: they move to and from the fire, fan the flames, pour jugs of water, hammer the iron hoops around the barrels before finally removing the top hoops and rolling them into the backyard, where they smoulder. A hypnotic ritual of indescribable beauty.
“We use three fires: the first is just to heat the cask, the second is where we gradually bend the staves, and the third, once the cask is closed, is where we give it the final touch – a last blast of heat when we set the level of charring inside the barrel as requested by each customer,” he explains. This charring is what gives the future liquid content its own unique flavour.
Everything is done by eye. There are no time meters such as those used in industrial cooperage. «For us, all the woods are different and each barrel is unique, and so it is the cooper who decides… because the wood speaks to you,» says Rafael.
This craft has been entirely revolutionised in recent decades, brought on not so much by the wine industry, which gave rise to the cooper trade in the first place, but the recent boom in whiskies aged in Scottish-style oak casks. Today Scotch whisky is produced worldwide; with the peculiarity, among others, that the whisky is aged in oak barrels that previously contained sherry wines (with the Jerez or Montilla-Moriles protected designation of origin).
Today, Scotch whisky is produced from Japan to Australia and the United States – the preferred market of this cooperage. “Traditionally our market was Scotland, and there you always met much older people with an old-fashioned mentality who found it rather strange when a young guy with tattoos turned up. But now, innovation and quality go hand in hand with people like me, people who’ve been skaters, who speak the urban language, who love rock music and hip hop… and those are the young people who are breaking the markets with new rules,” adds Rafael.
We ask him to define his business. “We sell flavours. When we make a barrel we already know what it’s going to be used for. It’s a long process taking 3 or 4 years, from the moment we buy the wood to the moment the cask reaches the customer: we make it, but we also take it to whichever distillery they want; we fill it with the type of wine specified by the distiller, then later we empty that barrel and send it to the client,” he explains. Furthermore, when making the casks “we offer three levels of charring, because oak, when it heats up, releases molecules of lignin, cellulose and other elements that transform into flavours. The more charred the wood is inside the barrel, the stronger the flavours of vanilla, coconut and coffee. And the less toasted it is, the stronger the flavours of wood, walnut and almond. It’s the winemakers from the whisky distilleries who tell us which nuance they’re looking for.”
It’s like bringing up a child to hand over to the adoptive father, I say. “Yes, like creating a custom-made child. The adoptive father tells you whether or not they want blue eyes, blond or brown hair, a pale complexion… When we fill the barrel with the type of wine that the client requests, and which the distiller tested previously (it can be any wine of the sherry variety: Oloroso, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, or Pedro Ximénez of Montilla-Moriles or Jerez designation of origin…), we are giving it the personality that the whisky distiller wants for their barrels.”
In 2006, Rafael left for Seattle to work with some very young distillers who were the pioneers in the US in making Scotch whisky, rather than bourbon. One particular whisky, Westland, has swept up the awards, including Best Single Malt in America in 2015, and revolutionised the US market. That was a real springboard for this cooperage which now works with the best in the world and has become a reference in the US: “We are working with a distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, that wants to age a bourbon in Pedro Ximénez wine barrels. They’re going to make 60,000 bottles and Casknolia will play a big part. In fact, they’re making a documentary about the whole process, from the buying of the wood to the making of the barrels, and recently they came here to film. Now I’m going out there to film in the Appalachians in Ohio, where we bought the wood. It really is a fascinating business,” he tells me, his eyes shining and sparkling like the fires in the batiero.