Scotland business

Whisky stills: Crafting a sculpture in copper

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Media captionStaff at Abercrombie's factory in Alloa are working flat-out to keep up with demand for traditional copper stills

The dramatic growth in whisky sales over the past few years is giving new life to an age-old Scottish craft. Coppersmiths are working flat out to create new copper stills for distilleries around the country.

Traditional stills are an integral part of the Scotch whisky production process. Alloa-based coppersmiths Abercrombie is among those trying to keep up with orders.

Producing a traditional copper pot still is a blend of strength, skill and patience.

Without these stills, there would be no boom in sales of Scotch, no export trade worth billions of pounds a year.

At Abercrombie they are hammering out the vast stills, the engine rooms at the heart of each distillery.

Image caption Abercrombie staff produce a wide range of stills

Operations manager Charlie King takes great pride in what he and his staff produce.

"What we make here is stunningly beautiful - it is just sculpture in copper," he tells me.

"It's functional equipment, it does what it's supposed to do, but it is just beautiful.

"There is a huge amount of joy and pride when you see something leaving here to go to a distillery."

When you see these copper stills, you can understand the pride - they are all curves, with barely a square edge in sight.

The people who build them have never been so busy.

'Giant kettle'

Alec Begg is a chargehand coppersmith who has been with Abercrombie for more than 25 years.

He says: "Basically it is a big giant kettle - liquid goes in, it gets boiled up and the vapours go up over the head into the swan neck, come down and - in this case - into condensers. And that's the spirit."

Image caption Coppersmiths say the shape of a still affects the character of the whisky produced

It may sound simple, but it's not. There is a bewildering range of stills, born in the mists of time when distilling was done on a small scale.

"It's got to be the right shape," explains Mr Begg.

"It's got to be alike to the stills that are already there. If you are replacing a still, it has to be like-for-like, basically.

"Every still is pretty much different to the next one - every distillery is different to the next distillery anyway, so it keeps us busy."

The business is now owned by the drinks firm Diageo, which is investing billions of pounds to meet a global thirst for Scotch.

Eight young apprentices have been taken on at the factory to meet that demand. Three more will join them this year.

'Blood, sweat and tears'

Nathan Evans is one of the current crop - his grandfather worked here too. Now he's learning the skills of the coppersmith.

"Engineering on the whole is a craft but this stuff is hand worked - it really is blood, sweat and tears," he says.

Image caption A range of skills is required to produce a copper still

"It is a tiring job but it is rewarding."

With exports of Scotch rising year-on-year, whisky makers are having to work hard to keep up with demand.

So why not change the shape of those copper stills - standardise them and make life easy?

No chance, says Charlie King.

"Because of the character that is created in each of the distilleries, there is a real reluctance to change the shape, because the shape is one of the major factors that affects the character of the whisky produced," he tells me.

"So across our 30 distilleries, we have roughly 155 stills, maybe 75 different varieties - all different designs."

It is not just Scotch which is driving orders for this firm.

In one corner of the factory, a copper still is being prepared for shipping. It is bound for Turkey, to be used to make Raki.

For now, that's just a sideline.

Whisky remains at the heart of this business, 200 years after it began.

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