The tradition that is part of liquid gold

Date posted:
May 6, 2011

There’s an age-old tradition that calls for a cooper, when he has put the finishing touches to his barrel, to announce its completion by hammering out a little tune that ends with two taps on the barrel head. Unique to each cooper, some tunes are hobbled and clumsy, others more harmonious. “It depends on how musical you are,” says Abie Valentyn (63), who has been a cooper since the age of 24, continuing the trade of his uncle.


Valentyn, who demonstrates for visitors some of the facets in making oak barrels for brandy maturation at the Van Ryn’s Distillery near Stellenbosch, uses a few tunes himself. A guitarist in his spare time, he was once called on to accompany an orchestra that played at the launch of the Van Ryn’s Distillery in earlier times, using his hammer and vat.


He was trained as a cooper by three big names in their day - John Morkel, Mogammat Dante and Leslie Collins of the Collins family, well-known in coopers’ circles in the last century - and has been working at what is now Distell for almost 40 years. He is one of just 17 skilled coopers responsible for the repair and maintenance of thousands of barrels used across nine of the company’s maturation sites. Based at Van Ryn’s, his role includes inspecting barrels for leaks, flaws and to identify where repairs are needed.


Industry sources estimate that there are probably no more than 45 trained coopers operating in South Africa, all of them in the Cape. It takes five years’ training to become a cooper. The work requires enormous skill, precision and patience, and physical fitness. Virtually all the work involves hand-tooling, and barrels are also extremely heavy to move around.


Left: This is a dying art and artitists like Abie Valentyn are very scarce indeed.






Although the barrels used in South Africa to age brandy for the first three years may, according to local regulations, be no larger than 340 litres, bigger 1 000 litre barrels are used to further mature brandies that will eventually find their way into blends.  


Van Ryn’s, the only brandy distillery in South Africa with an on-site cooperage, has several thousand brandy maturation casks, all imported from Limousin, close to Cognac, in France.


Van Ryn’s prefers to use 300-litre hogshead-size barrels, all medium-toasted.  The smaller the container, the greater the exposure of the brandy to the wood that imparts sweet, nutty, spicy and vanilla characters to show the fruity flavours of the brandies to best effect. These barrels are all made from Pedunculate oaks grown in clay-limestone and rich granite soils in the forests of Limousin, and are between 120 and 200 years old at the time of felling. The wood is hand-split in the direction of the grain and is air- rather than kiln-dried to preserve its innate vivacity.


Air-drying allows the wood to season naturally with the rain leaching out the hard, green tannins and other bitter-tasting compounds, resulting in softer flavours, Abie explains.


Why, if the barrels are all imported, is it necessary to have an entire team of trained coopers on hand?


“To optimally maintain the barrels, which represent an enormous investment, requires that coopers understand how to split the wood, shape the staves and assemble the barrels. They must know how to toast the wood and for how long.  They must understand the grain of the wood and what its influence will be on the brandy,” says Marlene Bester, Van Ryn’s distillery manager.



Right: A barrel being toasted.



“No machine can ever replace a cooper and it is essential that these age-old skills are retained. We are making hand-crafted brandies here that demand traditional skills and total familiarity with hand tools.”


Abie, who gives three barrel-making demonstrations daily at Van Ryn’s on week-days and two on Saturdays, says it is only by making barrels yourself that you learn to read the condition of the barrels in your care.


“You rely on your eyes and your hands to detect, almost immediately, any potential flaws or leaks. After all this time, it becomes instinctive.”


Four Van Ryn’s brandies are produced at the distillery, just 35 minutes from Cape Town, in the Vlottenburg Valley, along the banks of the Eerste River. All internationally decorated, they are the Van Ryn’s 10 Year Old, a vintage brandy, and three pure potstilled Van Ryn’s Collection Reserve brandies, a 12, 15 and 20 Year Old. 


For details of distillery tours and specialised tastings, call (021) 881 3875 or visit



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