Building whisky barrels has long been a male-dominated craft, but two female recruits are up to the challenge.

By Mike Pomranz
March 05, 2019
Courtesy of Diageo

If you’ve never seen a whisky barrel being constructed, it’s actually quite incredible. Though it’s intuitive after the fact, since the liquid inside is meant to soak up characteristics from the barrel, using adhesives like glue to bind the wooden staves together is a no-no. Instead, a cooper (a.k.a. barrel-maker) is tasked with carving and aligning all the different parts of the barrel so that they can be bound together into an airtight container held only by the metal hoops. It truly is a craft — and in part because of the physical demands of the work — a craft that has long been dominated by men. But the spirits giant Diageo is doing its part to change that culture.

For the first time, Diageo has accepted two women as coopering apprentices, according to BBC News. Angela Cochrane, 31, and Kirsty Olychick, 38, are part of a group of 16 new apprentices joining a four-year program on how to build casks at Diageo’s Coopering School at Cambus, Clackmananshire in Scotland.

Courtesy of Diageo

Somewhat unexpectedly, Cochrane, who previously worked as a psychiatric nurse, said she heard about the program on Facebook. “I researched a bit about the trade online and thought it sounded like a really interesting career option, so I knew I had to go for it,” she was quoted as saying. “It's a lot more complex than I thought it would be and I'm knackered when I get in at night but everything from handling the barrels to swinging the hammer is already starting to feel a lot more natural…. I don't think [gender stereotypes] should stop anyone from doing what they want to do.”

Meanwhile, Olychick took a more traditional path to the apprenticeship, coming to Scotland thanks to her love of whisky. “I've always been inspired by the Scotch industry, so it is something I've always wanted to be involved in, but living in Canada I hadn't ever been exposed to the coopering craft,” she said. “Having family members who'd previously completed trade apprenticeships helped give me the confidence to go for it.”

According to ScotchWhisky.com, coopering isn’t the only gender barrier Diageo has helped break recently. In 2017, Rebecca Weir, at just 18 years old, became the first female apprentice at Abercrombie Coppersmiths where the company produces whisky stills.

Advertisement