The cask custodian
Since 2014, the Society’s stock of liquid gold has been stored under one roof in a bonded warehouse in the west of Scotland. That’s where industry veteran Jim Carberry keeps a watchful eye on the racks of slumbering casks until they’re ready to reach our members
PHOTOS: PETER SANDGROUND
Jim Carberry can date how long he’s been working in the wine and spirits business in Scotland back to the dark days of the early 1970s when, as he describes it, there was still a lot of ‘sleight of hand’ activities going on.
“I started out working for a wine importer and we bottled our own wines. You could do lots of things then that you can’t do now,” he says. “If you had a particular French Burgundy or Bordeaux wine that there was a lot of demand for, effectively you weren’t too particular of what you actually bottled and put that label on. You could even buy things like ‘Spanish Beaujolais’ then, it was unbelievable.
“We also bottled spirits, and the legislation wasn’t as tight then as it is now. We thought that we would get a one-up on our competitors by bottling a whisky at 37.5% abv, only to find out that within a couple of months it looked like one of these things the kids get at Christmas, where they shake it and the snowflakes come. Of course, that’s now illegal. Different times!”
Jim gives a new shipment of casks the once over
Thankfully for all of us, such sleight of hand is very much a thing of the past, and as Jim moved into working in bonded warehouses for Seagram’s he entered a different world of compliance and surveillance. Now there was the constant presence of an exciseman on site, and a level of scrutiny over everything that was coming and going.
“When you were loading a container going to export, or when you were receiving an import, it would arrive with a customs seal on it, which the warehouse keeper could not remove,” says Jim.
“You had to have what was known as a ‘watcher’, who was a uniformed HM C&E [Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise] revenue assistant, and he would remove the seal and check everything that came off. Similarly, if you were loading, he would check everything that went on.”
THE SMWS TREASURE TROVE
Jim’s journey eventually took him to the John G Russell logistics group, which had added bonded warehousing to its operations in the mid-1980s. That’s where the SMWS turned when it was looking to establish its own warehouse to consolidate its collection of casks and develop its long-term programme of acquisition and maturation. “That was a fascinating project, getting the warehouse ready, working with the SMWS, and I was amazed by seeing the variety of casks coming in,” says Jim. “You don’t get to taste it, but you get to see it, something of enormous value – not just from a commercial perspective, but as something that people from all over the world admire and rate.”
The Society now has around 10,000 casks on site, the equivalent of almost 3 million bottles and representing more than 130 distilleries. The casks are stored in a racking system that allows spirits manager Euan Campbell to draw samples and transfer whisky between casks when necessary for a period of additional maturation.
“The SMWS invested in a wonderful racking system, which means we can access every cask,” says Jim. “We’ve now built up a generation of staff who can carry out these operations, and all the guys doing it have this interest in the product instilled in them.”
As for Jim, now that he’s a custodian of wonderful single cask whisky, he’s come a long way from taking his drams mixed with Coke. “It might sound disgusting, but that’s the way I drank it,” he admits.
“But I could win a bet in a pub – I’d say: ‘Buy me a Johnnie Walker Black Label and a Johnnie Walker Red Label and put the same amount of Coke in both, I’ll tell you which one’s which.’ Now I’m more of a snob! If I saw somebody do something like that, I’d be: ‘Really!’
“Now I’ll only buy a malt, and that’s what I find interesting about the SMWS, it’s a great learning experience.”