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THE KNOWLEDGE • 9 The quest for whisky enlightenment continues


PHOTOGRAPHY: PETER SANDGROUND The mountain of multi-coloured cask

ends, with its honeycomb- like hotchpotch of brightly coloured circles, is always a beautiful sight at a distillery – one which is guaranteed to have first-time

visitors reaching for their cameras. Raymond Armstrong, the owner of

Bladnoch distillery, says it is a sight that reminds him of another classic Scottish scene – the row of coloured houses on the shoreline at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Going further, he describes the image as a “wee gem” from the history and culture of whisky. “I love whisky,” he says,

“but it’s not just the drink, it is also all the sights and sounds that are associated with it. The coloured cask ends are another part of the overall attraction.” The story of why cask ends are painted

in this way is a simple one, but perhaps not widely known. Each cask has a story to tell and each colour represents a chapter on its journey – in this case, how many fi llings each cask has had. At the Glenfi ddich and The Balvenie distilleries, they used to use white paint to indicate a fi rst fi lling and blue for a second. These days, however, they mostly use small plastic bar codes, which can provide all kinds of information about the cask when scanned. It is also, of course, more cost-eff ective than buying vast amounts of paint every year. The colour coding system is a throwback to a time when it was standard practice for distillers to

paint their cask ends, or use stencils. Ian McDonald, head cooper at Glenfi ddich and The Balvenie, remembers when paint and stencils were commonplace. “My fi rst job 42 years ago was painting casks,” he says. “Then we moved to stencilling with a brush and spraygun. The stencils used a numbering system showing a year of make and fi rst use – for example, 11-1 for a fi rst-fi ll cask in 2011. “I remember distillery managers used to be very

strict about all the casks being displayed correctly in the warehouses with all the stencils sitting upright at 12 o’clock so they all looked neat and tidy.” Ian also recalls seeing some stencils on old Spanish casks that were gouged into the wood like “works of art”. In other cases, distillers used punchmarks in the rims around the cask ends to identify the number of fi llings they had had – for example, one punch for fi rst fi ll, two punches for second fi ll and so on.

These days, Speyside Cooperage still paints some

casks, as do some distilleries – at the BenRiach distillery, they use green paint for a cask that is on its fi rst fi lling, blue for a second-fi ll cask, red for a third fi ll and white or grey for a cask with more than three fi lls. But that picturesque pile of coloured

cask ends may well, like many other traditional aspects of whisky- making process, become a thing of the past soon.


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