The family distillery
My old man had worked at the distillery in the village all his life. Most of the men did. It was expected that most boys would follow their fathers and the company prided itself on being a ‘family business’. So the day after I left school, aged 15, I was proud to walk down the main village street shoulder to shoulder with Dad, though the big iron gates and into the whitewashed buildings that had only been the backdrop to my life until that day.
Young lads at work at Cardhu Distillery in ages gone by
Lunch in between a hard day's distilling whisky
A few months later I was still reeling from the hard work, the sights and smells. Every lunch hour all the men and boys sat together; outside if it was fine, in a smoke filled shed if more often wet and cold, to eat whatever wives and mothers had packed into our metal tins. Often we boys just sat and listened to our elders, sometimes we were the subject of good natured ribbing or less good natured rebukes for misdemeanours committed in the morning.
On one such occasion after tins had been packed away and pipes or cigarettes lit there was a sudden silence. The men exchanged nods and winks and my father cleared his throat and slapped his knees decisively. ‘Can we have a word, lad’. He cocked his head to indicate the door to the shed. I followed him outside and down a path to a more remote building on the edge of the distillery site.
Earning my copper dogs
I could just make out by the light of a candle my father’s face and those of several of the older men. The oldest man brought out a leather strap. ‘Well lad, we all think the time has come. Drop your trews’.
‘What?’. I clutched the belt holding up my pair of old school trousers, a bit short in the leg.
‘Your trews, come on we haven’t got all day’. With shaking fingers I began to undo the belt.
‘Now, lad. You have earned your dogs.’ I was presented with a leather strap, sealed copper tubes dangling from each end. The strap was draped over my shoulders and the tubes fed down each trouser leg. ‘Word of warning lad’ the old man wheezed ‘once these are full careful how you tread. Get your wedding tackle caught up you’ll know it.’ The men all snorted in the dark. ‘Not to mention when it’s cold – you don’t want them sticking where they don’t belong, have to stand you near the boilers just to thaw them out’. More snorting.
‘But what do I do with them?’ I was trying to adjust the cold metal, these were going to chafe.
Copper dipping dogs were used to... liberate... whisky from the casks at the distillery; photo courtesy of Spirit Thief Distilling.
‘What do you think they’re for? Come with me for a little walk’. Dad nodded towards the bonded warehouse, putting his hands in his pockets he jerked his own dogs making his trousers bulge at the knees. I followed him down the path to the warehouse. ‘Do we all get these?’ I asked. He turned back to face me. ‘Most certainly not’.
‘So why me?’ He smiled and ruffled my hair. ‘Because you’re the dogs bollocks, lad’.
If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy our blog post about smuggling whisky.
Words penned for the Firkin Founder Mike Collings by Jane Offler The Whisky Widow