The Quercus Alba Myth

The Quercus Alba Myth

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

Thoughts from... | 25 Oct 2013 | Issue 115 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

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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. Isolated stands of pure Quercus alba are rare as the various species overlap significantly.

Making it even more difficult to isolate genuine Quercus alba is the fact that oak species interbreed so easily. What's more, when you look at the distribution of Quercus alba in North America and compare that with where the barrel staves come from, it becomes obvious that the wood for American barrels is being harvested in places where Quercus alba does not actually grow.

Does this mean some American barrels are not made of white oak? No, not necessarily. All Quercus alba is American white oak, but there are also many other species of American white oak meaning that not all white oak is Quercus alba.

What about the Quercus species used to make barrels in Europe? Are multiple species of European white oak sneaking into French oak barrels too? Centuries of careful husbandry there have narrowed it down to just two. Toward the end of the 13th century, a law was proclaimed requiring that each oak cut had to be replaced, as oak timbers were prized for shipbuilding and construction. Strong, straight-grained oak beams were favoured for building castles, for instance.

Few castles are built in France today but the law requiring all cut oaks to be replaced is still in place, 700 years later.

And after seven centuries, seed stock for the replacement trees still comes from groves of Quercus petrae and Quercus robur. Today, all French barrel oak is harvested from publicly owned estates which, under continuous state control, have come to include just these two species. In North America, however, barrel oak is harvested from a mix of many species found in wild forests and forests that have only recently come under cultivation.

A forestry professor in Wisconsin once provided me with a list of 16 different species of American white oak with barrel stave potential and only one of these was Quercus alba. To say that all American white oak barrels are made from Quercus alba is simply naïve, he cautioned me.

Recent DNA analysis of barrel staves confirms that there are at least 26 different species of American white oak currently used to make barrels and 25 of these are clearly not Quercus alba.

My personal quest to solve the American white oak mystery continues under the guidance of several leading experts, not master distillers or whisky makers, but taxonomists, botanists, and, yes, forestry scientists. So, while I beaver away at this task, may I ask my fellow whisky bloggers to join me in not spreading "The Quercus alba myth?" We wouldn't want to give that redfaced wine critic reason to snicker back at us.
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