The Blackening at Speyside Cooperage

01 May 2016 by

Apprentice coopers must undergo a traditional yet messy rite of passage if they’re to graduate as a fully-fledged craftsman.

After spending four years training under master coopers, apprentices cannot graduate until they experience ‘The Blackening’.

A tradition held by coopers for centuries, the Blackening involves smothering the young coopers in muck – usually a mixture of pot ale, molasses, soot, sawdust, feathers and flour, before rolling them around the cooperage in a large Sherry butt.

This ceremony, held on 29 April, was the first Blackening to take place at Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie for 10 years, and the first time members of the public were able to get up close – though not too close – to the action.

The two apprentices graduating this time around were Callum Lawson, 21, and Kyle Cooper, 20.

Immediately after the Blackening, shivering with a cold beer in hand, Lawson said: ‘I’m glad we’ve graduated but this was the bit I was worried about. Two other apprentices, Craig [Lambie] and my little brother Reece, graduate next year, and that will be in the snow, which is going to be even worse.’

Gill Reid, visitor centre manager at the Speyside Cooperage, said the event when better than expected.

‘We haven’t had a Blackening for over 10 years, and it’s never been opened up to the public like this; it’s only ever been witnessed from the viewing gallery,’ she said. ‘The public do run the risk of getting involved, although everyone’s been quite well-behaved today.’

The Speyside Cooperage in Alloa also Blackened its first apprentices in many years in January. Reid added that not very many apprentices graduate as fully-fledged coopers.

‘The apprenticeship takes four years to do, but not every apprentice will complete the apprenticeship,’ she said. ‘Right now we have no new apprentices coming in. We aren’t inundated with requests because it is such a labour-intensive job. It’s very hands-on, and not automated at all, although saying that there’s no shortage of coopers.’

Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie now has 18 full-time coopers, and is open to the public for tours Monday to Friday.

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