Of the many stages in the manufacture of a good whisky, it is the final process of maturation and ageing over several years in wooden casks that infuses the final subtle flavors that define it and make it distinct. The art of Cooperage involves fine craftsmanship to get the right wood, construction, thermal treatments, or ensuring the right recycled casks of port, sherry or ale popularly used in maturing whisky. The final notes that the whisky officianados try to identify, the nose, all happens when the cooperage is right. However the slightest of aberrations in the wood of the cask, such as infection or mold etc can hugely affect the stock and after the notes and flavors.
Enter Rocco, the new member of the quality control team at Grant’s, a blended scotch whisky by William Grant & Sons. Rocco’s ability to ‘nose’ a very large number of casks to sniff out the cooperage in a short span makes him a fantastic addition to the team of craftsmen at the distillery in Scotland. Rocco is a youthful two year old cocker spaniel, with melting eys, happy expression and a gorgeous shiny coffee-caramel coloured coat. We spoke with Rocco’s boss and trainer, Chris Wooff, who is also the Associate Global Brand Director at Grant’s
Neelima Agrawal – Why did Grant’s choose a cocker spaniel when the breeds with the best nose are usually Pointers or Hounds or Beagles?
Chris Wooff – The Gundog breeds, which include Spaniels, Retrievers, Pointers and Setters among others, all make fantastic search dogs. Springer spaniels and cocker spaniels are commonly employed for very important roles like explosive detection, drug detection etc. Rocco is a working cocker spaniel from some of the best gundog blood lines in the UK.
Was Rocco selected mostly for his good looks before being put into training, or some other redeeming quality?
Working dogs are assessed, tested and trained according to their capabilities rather than looks. It just so happens that Rocco is a very handsome boy.
Will there be more Rocco like in Grant’s other departments too? Afterall, the business of Spirits is all about the nose.
Rocco has made a brilliant impression on the distillery and we are already seeing fantastic results from his superior nose. At the moment, his work will be limited to the cooperage and checking the casks but who knows what possibilities there are for the future.
How did the idea of hiring a sniffer dog happen?
Mechanical ‘noses’ are widely used in the wine-making industry, but we wanted to maintain the tradition of our craft skills by using a dog’s natural super-sense of smell in our quality control process. Rocco’s ability to ‘nose’ a very large number of casks in a short space of time means he is a fantastic addition to the Grant’s team of craftsmen.
Has it been tried earlier? Is it the first ever experiment with Grant’s?
This is the first time we’ve incorporated such a role and Rocco has been brought on board because of his nosing abilities and his unique skillset.
What are Rocco’s role and key responsibilities? How old is he? Is he 100% spot on in the selection?
When Rocco was a puppy, he lived with a family until he was 9 months old. They named him but realized soon after that he would be better suited to a working life. So they got in touch with Stuart Philips, who they knew had a great reputation for looking after and training these types of dog. Rocco is now two years old.
Rocco is a very hardworking member of the Grant’s team. Rocco’s job is to sniff out the quality of the casks at the cooperage, where wooden barrels are made by highly skilled craftsmen who use traditional techniques to prepare the barrels that protect and help perfect Grant’s Whisky for years. When he’s done checking out the quality of the wood in the cooperage, Rocco noses around the rest of the distillery to make sure that everything is going to plan.
When he’s done checking out the quality of the wood in the cooperage, Rocco noses around the rest of the distillery to make sure that everything is going to plan. If Rocco picks up the scent of anything that needs attention, it gets reported to me. He pays great attention to detail, and nothing escapes his nose!
What are his training modules?
Before taking up his new role at Grant’s, Rocco went through 6 months of intensive training with dog training expert Stuart Philips in Pembrokeshire, Wales, to hone his natural skills. Trainer Stuart used a number of cask samples from the Grant’s distillery to build a training ground for Rocco.
His training consisted of environmental and socialization training in the early stages. During the environmental training phase, Rocco was trained to be around loud noises, people working and machinery operating, walking on different and difficult floor surfaces and be in environments to prepare him for work in a busy and sometimes dangerous work place. Then, Rocco took part in search training, indication training and was imprinted on the target odor which he is now trained to locate within the Cooperage / Distillery. Rocco now regularly takes part in odor identification tests to ensure that he is performing at the top of his game for his role.
What is a day in the life of Rocco at the distillery?
This is all new to us at the distillery and we need to learn how to work together to get the best out of Rocco and to make sure he is happy at his work. We anticipate he will spend a few hours each day patrolling the cask compound nosing the empty casks and also helping with the inspection of new casks arriving at the cooperage.
To make sure that Rocco feels right at home and is on call night and day, Grant’s craftsmen have built him a kennel right outside the distillery in South Ayrshire, Scotland, and he is cared for by Team Leader Lianne Noble, who prepares his daily work schedule and keeps him fed and exercised.
What is the importance of traditional cooperage and craft skills and how would Rocco be enhancing the whisky making process?
Wood is a natural material, and the distilling of whisky is an organic process, so our job for Grant’s Whisky is to make sure that everything is perfect as the whisky ages in the oak casks. The sense of smell of a dog like Rocco is 40 times stronger than a human’s, and we’ve specially selected and trained Rocco to pick up the scent of anything that’s not quite right as the whisky matures.
Rocco is a great addition to the Grant’s team and while he won’t change how we approach the process of cask quality; his keen sense of smell and speed of nosing means we are hoping he will improve our ability to detect any casks that are not up to our standards.