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THE 9,395km BAR-REL MASTERCLASS

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Vienna to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, that's 9,395 kilometres. Let's do this!


 


Join our new journey with this very special

"remote Masterclass". Ian is about to start his very own Bar-rel Bar using a Hogshead Cask from the Whisky Barron that was used once to mature some delicious Glenrothes single malt.




 


Part 1: The Barrel


I had a feeling that Pierre was up to something. But I had no idea what it was.


Pierre and I have many shared passions. Mountaineering, woodworking, food, family... but most of all, whisky. We spent many fun evenings during five years in Vienna exploring different whiskys and working on projects big and small in the Fait Maiz workshop. And I often lamented the fact that I wouldn't have space to take one of Pierre's Bar-rel's with me when my temporary assignment in Vienna came to an end.


But as the date of my move to Malaysia approached there was a twinkle in Pierre's eye that I couldn't quite fathom. Then on moving day itself came a cryptic message:

"I left something in your garage - see if it fits". And there it was. A hogshead barrel, from Glenrothes distillery in Speyside. An amazing piece of history that started life as a bourbon cask, and then spent many years maturing one of my all-time favourite whiskys.

I would have happily sacrificed just about any item of furniture to be able to take it with me, but luck was on my side and it squeezed into the shipping container and was on its way to Kuala Lumpur.


For those who haven't worked with Pierre yet, you should know that he runs a "Masterclass", where he guides you through the process of making your own Bar-rel in his workshop (alongside much whisky drinking, barbequing and general amusement). And Pierre's idea was simple - he would do a remote masterclass with me, via Facetime, once I arrived in KL.


I know for a fact that there is no way I will match Pierre's creations. But I know that with Pierre's endless good humour and patience it will be a lot of fun trying, and I'll be telling the story here on Pierre's blog as it unfolds.



 


Part 2: The Clean Up


The first issue I had to grapple with is the fact that if you work with Pierre you have a fully-equipped workshop at your fingertips - whereas here in KL I have a random assortment of barely fit-for-purpose power tools, some dating back two generations of my family. Luckily, in Malaysia you can minimally equip yourself for any project with a visit to "Mr DIY", a hardware store guaranteed to have almost (but not exactly) what you were looking for.

So suitably equipped with an assortment of angle grinder attachments of dubious quality I set to work.




Step one was to remove decades of dirt, grime, rust and old paint from the outside of the barrel. This turned out to be a rather fun family activity, as watching well-seasoned oak and burnished steel appear from under the thick layer of grime was truly mesmerising.








At various stages in this build you have to remove, clean and refit the metal hoops which hold the staves together. There is a specific tool for this called a Hoop Driver, but unfortunately this was beyond even the realms of Mr DIY's product range - but an old spanner cut down with an angle grinder made a passable substitute. Improvise, adapt and overcome!





A big challenge was the Malaysian climate - in 30 degree heat and 90% humidity the painstakingly cleaned steel hoops would rust again overnight if given half a chance. We tried various solutions and discovered a liberal application of mineral oil both stopped the rust from reappearing and left a deep, glossy surface finish. The downside was that this rendered the barrel rather too slippery to move, but luckily this proved to be only temporary!








After much wire-brushing, sanding and oiling (not to mention vacuuming and dusting!) the barrel was a true thing of beauty. There's still a lot of work to do, but I now have a stunning blank canvas to start with. Next comes the inside cleanup and engraving the cask end which will bring its own set of challenges - but luckily I have a superb advisor on hand. Thanks Pierre!











 

Part 3: Engraving


The next challenge was to find a way to engrave a design on the top of the barrel. If you're building a barrel with Pierre, in his workshop he has a CO2 laser engraving machine that will do the job. Being 9000km away from Pierre's workshop, once again I had to improvise.



Luckily I was put in touch with the lovely people at Me.reka Makerspace, a public workshop that runs classes in everything from welding to textile design. In amongst their many awesome tools and projects (including a home-made 1980s arcade machine) is a laser engraver that they were delighted to let me use.













One of the things I love about living in Malaysia is just how friendly and helpful literally everyone you meet is. Winnie from Me.reka was no exception, and after a huge amount of help from her we were all set up to engrave the cask end. Our family has moved around A LOT (six countries and counting), so we decided on a compass rose motif in the centre, leaving space around the outside for the coat of arms of each country we've lived in. These will be done later as moveable "coins", just in case wanderlust strikes us again and we need to add to the collection!



Next step is to stain and sand the cask end to make the design really stand out. Then time to reassemble the barrel and start on the next stage of the transformation...



 


Part 4: Major surgery


What I hadn't quite realised at this point was that hard work hadn't even begun yet. The next step was to secure the metal hoops to the barrel with screws so the barrel would maintain its integrity once the doors are cut out.


Then it was just a small matter of drilling a hundred or so holes through the tough metal hoops with a small battery-powered drill. I have no idea what sort of steel those hoops are made of but it was substantially harder than a "Mr DIY" brand drill bit and I had quite a collection of blunt and broken drill bits by the end of this stage of the project. It was also backbreaking work and I found myself developing an even greater respect for Pierre who has built over 110 of these barrels and must have forearms of steel!






It was now time to start on the most intimidating part of the build. Now the hoops were secured I could cut out an opening that would eventually become the door. Taking an angle grinder to this decades-old thing of beauty felt like it bordered on sacrilege, and I was acutely aware that I would only get one shot at this. One slip of the angle grinder would leave very visible damage front-and-center of the finished barrel. Thankfully my luck was in and after much grinding and sawing I had a perfect rectangular section cut from the front, and the heady aroma of whisky filled the workshop as we removed it and exposed the whisky-infused interior of the barrel.














It was around this point that a nagging doubt in my head started to make itself heard.

Despite all the wire brushing the outside of the barrel was still grey and weathered, which hid much of the beauty of the oak staves. Undecided, I consulted Pierre about sanding it down. "It's doable, just will need a lot of time", he said.


This sounded ominous, but I gingerly took a sander to the exterior and was rewarded with a glimpse of intricate wood grain and a host of other details like date stamps and the maker's mark which had been previously invisible in the sea of grey. It took many hours, and was filthy work, but eventually I had the whole barrel sanded enough to reveal the beautiful wood grain while retaining the blemishes and character from its many decades in the warehouse. A dark oak woodstain completed the transformation and suddenly it was clear just how amazing the outcome of this project was going to be.





















 


Part 5: Finishing touches


Hugely encouraged by this progress I set about attending to the many fine details that make Pierre's creations so special, under the instruction (as always) of the master craftsman himself.


The first step was to turn the section I'd cut out into a set of doors. A game of three-dimensional Tetris ensued, trying to align the hinges so the doors were square in both the open and closed positions - two outcomes that seemed to be mutually exclusive! After much fine adjustment we got there and it was time to move to the interior.









Next was to make shelves for the inside, and for the first time in this project I was spoiled for choice. Malaysia produces a huge amount of tropical hardwoods, and I wanted to add a local twist to this piece of Scottish history. I settled on Meranti which is a beautiful local hardwood with a tight, interlocking grain and a hardness which seemed to exceed that of most of my saw blades. There are many options to customise here, but I decided to go for a false bottom (providing a secret compartment for hiding my favourite whiskys) and a 3/4 width shelf in the centre.


















After many months of cleaning, carpentry and metalwork, the next challenge was electrical engineering. Pierre has LED lighting systems made in collaboration with Pegasus Systems GmbH, a local specialist in Vienna which, like everything in this project, are a true work of art. Magnets, hall sensors, diffusers and all sorts of other wizardry had to be carefully concealed within the rustic interior of charred oak and gleaming meranti. The analogue world meets the digital...






 


Part 6: Finished!!!




It been a long and fascinating journey, and I've learnt a lot, laughed a lot and spent many happy hours on FaceTime with Pierre being guided through the process. What's really struck about about this whole project is that each one of these creations is truly unique - a combination of the already decades-long story of the barrel alongside the partnership of Pierre and its eventual owner.


There are many drinks cabinets in the world but this one - and the memories of making it - is mine. And there isn't another one quite like it.












 





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