Traditional whisky distilling and wooden surfboard making may seem worlds apart—one from rugged Scotland, the other originating in wave-caressed Hawaii—but Ruaraidh MacIntyre says they do share a similar ethos.
“When you come to whisky making, you are thinking in the long term,” says MacIntyre, the national brand manager for Glenmorangie whisky in Canada. “It’s worth putting in a little extra effort, a bit of extra investment for the payoff. Having a wooden board costs three times as much as a plastic board, but it will last three times as long.”
Glenmorangie’s Beyond the Cask program involves turning the company’s oak barrels into new and interesting objects. Projects have included turning old barrel staves into sunglasses and bicycles, and now surfboards.
“We are always looking to use our casks. We want to do something more creative with them,” says MacIntyre. “The lifespan of our casks is 25 years, while some competitors will keep theirs for up to 65 years. You are really not getting any fresh flavours from the wood after 65 years.”
“Surfing is something we do in the northeast coast of Scotland, cold-water surfing admittedly. You do need a wetsuit, but there is an active scene,” says MacIntyre, who was a surfer when he was younger.
Glenmorangie paired up with Grain Surfboards for the project. The company is located in York, Maine, an hour north of Boston. They started making wooden boards almost 15 years ago.
“This is definitely the most challenging and exciting project we have been involved in,” says Grain Surfboards’ Mike LaVecchia. “We didn’t want to make something that just looks good, we wanted to make something that is functional and that we could be proud of.”
The challenge, he says, was coming up with a way to use barrel staves without affecting the weight or the strength of the board. LaVecchia says initially it was difficult figuring out how to mill the American white oak stave.
“Most of the tools you use to mill wood are based on relatively straight and square stock. This is tapered, narrower on the ends, and curved this way and that way,” he says, holding up a stave, its inside curve charred. “Even the way they burn the inside of the barrel for the flavour, we had to grind all that off, because the soot and char would dull the blade.”
Another issue Grain had to contend with is the wood is saturated with whisky. Even after sitting around the manufacturing shop for a few months, it still smelled. It also means the wood really needed to be dried, which caused it to twist and needed to clamped and weighted.
After some trial and error, they discovered a method where the internal structure of the board, its book-matched veneers, tail blocks and custom fins are made from the barrel staves. It takes about 60 hours to complete one board. By mid-March, 28 boards had been built. The sell for US$5,500.
“It was definitely a lot to learn the first month or two,” says LaVecchia. “Normally, when we build a board, it’s one at a time. One of us will build it from start to finish. With this project, there were three or four of us, and it was really a bit of a production line.”
Grain sent a board to Scotland earlier this year and it was used by a pro-surfer. “The first wave he caught, he got a barrel. He got wave after wave and just loved the board,” says LaVecchia.
MacIntyre says the plan is to make 60 boards in total, which will be sold on the Grain Surfboards website. He was lucky enough to receive two of them. But, they aren’t for his own use. “Hopefully they will find a home,” he says about wanting to display them. “I hope to have one on the east coast and one on the west coast of Canada.”