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Issue 103 - The Quirks of Quercus

Whisky Magazine Issue 103
April 2012


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The Quirks of Quercus

Mark Gillespie looks at American Oak

Here's a trivia question for you: how many types of White Oak are found around the world?

For now, let's talk about one of them: Quercus Alba, also known as American White Oak. It's the wood most often used for maturing whisky around the world, largely because it's the wood used for maturing Bourbon and Tennessee whiskies.

By U. S. law, those barrels can only be used once for Bourbon and Tennessee whiskies, which means there's a massive supply of used Quercus Alba barrels for distillers around the world to work with.

However, the law doesn't specify the species of oak distillers must use. How, then, did distillers settle on Quercus Alba, given that there are plenty of White Oak and Red Oak (Quercus Rubra) trees growing in the traditional whiskey-producing regions of North America.

“If you made a barrel out of red oak, by the end of the day all your whiskey's on the floor,” says Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve. Quercus Rubra is too porous to hold liquid, but it makes great furniture.

Most other hardwoods are too brittle to be made into barrels.

“We have experimented with what I call exotic woods (non-oak), Morris says. “We have had our cooperage make barrels out of sugar maple, hickory, pecan, ash, and sassafras as finishing barrels.“ His lab tests the potential for exotic woods by adding toasted and charred chips of cherry, pecan, and other woods to beakers filled with Bourbon. “Those that taste good, we'll see if we can make barrels out of them,” he says...

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