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Issue 115 - The Quercus alba myth

Whisky Magazine Issue 115
October 2013

 

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The Quercus alba myth

On a personal quest to discover the truth about American oak barrels

There is a page on Facebook where whisky bloggers share tips, ideas, and common interests. When a prominent wine writer admitted in the press that he did not enjoy spirits, then proved it by awarding 94 points to a whisky that did not exist, we shared a superior snicker.

But then a new theme emerged.

Popular-press articles about whisky are frequently inaccurate. Some writers don't take the time to research their subject fully. That annoys serious whisky writers and bloggers, but aren't we just as guilty?

When I worked in a barley lab, I studied the small grassy grains. My supervisor, a specialist in cross breeding different species, taught me what makes a species and how new species evolve. When I began to study to whisky, I was puzzled by the unquestioned assertion that there is only one species of American white oak – Quercus alba – for making barrels.

How could it be that of all the many dozens of species of American white oak, only one managed to find its way into barrels? Could forestry workers really keep the albas separate from all the other white oak species without spending a fortune?

Recently, stave makers have started plantations, but it will be generations before those groves include just a single species. And while a trained eye can usually differentiate species of live oak, once it is cut this is virtually impossible without sophisticated scientific instruments to tell one from the other.

Digging further into this issue confirmed my suspicions. Isolate...

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