White oak is vital for whiskey production, but its future is uncertain

White oak is vital for whiskey production, but its future is uncertain

Though one of the most vital materials used in whisky making, little is yet known about how best to conserve this precious resource

Sustainability | 05 Oct 2021 | Issue 178 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Competition is fierce in the forest. If an oak tree is going to thrive for a century or more, it has to vie for natural resources such as light and water. It’s got to defend itself against invasive plants and weeds. Pestilence is always a threat. In recent years, white oak seedlings in forests on the western side of the Mississippi River – in states like Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas – have not been surviving. There are giant white oaks that began their lives not long after the Victorian era, and there are small trees just making their way. But there are not a whole lot of middle-sized trees. Without the so-called ‘mid-story canopy’, when an old oak tree is harvested it will take a very long time before it’s replaced. This is a problem.

“It raises alarm when you see something that should be there isn’t. There’s a recognition there’s a problem. We need seedlings to survive and be bigger,” said Laura DeWald, improvement specialist in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at University of Kentucky. “The White Oak Initiative was created to try to figure that out.”

Projected to run for 15 years, the initiative is a sweeping, multi-faceted program through which researchers are aiming to discover what conditions and agricultural practices help a white oak tree flourish. It also aims to map the white oak’s DNA and harness its genealogy to figure out optimal growing conditions. In other words, to call this gargantuan project ‘ambitious’ would be something of an understatement.

Due to the whiskey industry’s dependence on white oak and how critical it is to have access to this natural resource well into the future, distilleries have got involved in the enterprise. In mid-April, Buffalo Trace Distillery planted 1,066 trees on its farm. The seedlings are from 40 different parent trees in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Over the next few years, they plan to have seedlings from 104 different parent trees planted there.

“We want to learn what to focus on when reforesting land,” said Dennis Walsh, homeplace manager at Buffalo Trace. “We want to find out what grows the straightest, fastest, strongest and other things – like what species is the best to plant in an agricultural format.” (N.B. The experiment involves different landscapes. Agricultural formats refer to farms and fields. Other terrains are industrial, which is to say where there once was gravel or pavement.

Six different ‘establishment technique’ variations are being used on the Buffalo Trace property, which include tilling with cover crop of orchard grass or winter wheat, use of herbicide and planting directly into the fescue (hay). The distillery’s plot is unique within the university’s program in that it’s the first site to integrate irrigation. All the many different variables and controls could lead researchers to isolate a factor that’s particularly beneficial or detrimental to white oak’s growth. They could, for instance, learn that tilling the ground is counterproductive to reforestation. However, everything is pure speculation at the moment. There’s absolutely no saying what they might discover, and DeWald is sure there are things which might be revealed that haven’t been considered before.

Buffalo Trace’s land management work is just one aspect of the White Oak Initiative. The other major component is referred to as ‘tree improvement’, and Maker’s Mark has been a major part of that arm of the research. The university is using 23 acres of the distillery’s Star Hill Farm to grow up to 300 trees from seedlings obtained from various regions throughout the eastern United States. Controlling for the soil and growing conditions will help researchers understand if a tree’s growth rate is a result of environment or genetics.
One of Maker’s Mark’s ‘mother trees'

“You might see a fast-growing tree in a forest, but you have to ask: did it get lucky in where that acorn fell? If we collect acorns from parent trees and plant them in the same location, we can know what’s caused by genetics,” explained DeWald. “The tree improvement studies are helping the White Oak Initiative because once you figure out how to best manage the land, now you have a supply of seedlings that are really good. A tree could be good genetically, but you might not be able to figure out how to grow it. But this is all the pieces coming together.”
The tasting rooms at Maker’s Mark’s Star Hill Farm

This is not Maker’s Mark’s first foray into sustainability-focused programming. Brian Mattingly, director of bottling and warehouse operations, who is helping to oversee the White Oak Initiative work, estimates the company has planted at least 12,000 trees on the property in the last eight years in the name of reforestation. To hear him tell it, though, while the environmental factor has inspired and continues to power the work, they’ve seen returns in more immediate – and unexpected – ways, particularly as it relates to using different woods for barrel-ageing and wood’s impact on flavour. It’s what brought about Maker’s 46, which employed new French oak staves in the ageing process and was the first in the brand’s wood-finishing series. It’s also what prompted the company’s involvement in the massive gene-mapping part of the initiative.
Seth DeBolt of University of Kentucky’s James B Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits

“We have a majestic white oak tree on the peninsula of a spring-fed lake. Researchers from University of Kentucky came out here and took genetic tissue from that tree. It’s the first white oak tree that had its genome mapped,” Mattingly explained. “Now they have this benchmark that we can use to compare the trees in the repository. Now we’re able to look and see the genetic make-up of the tree. Now we can see this base pair [of the DNA] is related to lignans, this pair influences vanilla, this pair causes a tree to bolt quicker, this one causes them to cast nuts [at different intervals]. We don’t even know what we don’t know.

“What we’ve created is the world’s only repository for all the genetic variation we’re aware of. Maybe from a dozen states. They’re taking nuts cast from parent trees and grow those seedlings at University of Kentucky.”

As Maker’s Mark develops and expands its on-site sustainability initiatives, it has expanded its distillery tours accordingly to cover more of the sprawling landscape, which encompasses more than 1,000 acres. Visitors to Star Hill Farm can now see the White Oak Repository, which Mattingly says will ultimately be a 20-acre research forest with all the genetic diversity they know of in the species.
The Lake at Star Hill Farm

Brown-Forman, which owns its own cooperage, is involved in the initiative, too, providing land for planting and helping the university to identify superior trees. “We’re looking to do what we can do to ensure we protect our natural environment for the future. Our goal is to conserve existing hardwood forests we depend on. We want to make sure we have white oak for another 150 years,” said Michael Cowherd, Brown-Forman’s senior manager of environmental performance. “From the forestry team here, we just try to identify what we need to do and how can we can impact that effort. We partner with other organisations to make that happen. The actual forestry is not what we do, we don’t own timberland, but we can partner [with loggers and landowners] and ensure they’re successful.”
Planting a Garryana tree

While all these programs and initiatives are incredible from academic and theoretical standpoints, one can’t help wonder how these isolated efforts can be put into effect on a grand scale for widespread impact. After all, with the exception of special projects like Maker’s 46, barrels are produced in huge bulk with lumber that cooperages buy from privately managed forests – many, many, many privately managed forests. There’s no telling how many different trees the staves for a single barrel come from. Sustainability is hard to regulate when cooperages are sourcing wood from countless independently operated forests in many different states.
Planting seedlings at Star Hill

That’s long been top-of-mind at Missouri-based Independent Stave Company (ISC), the world’s largest barrel manufacturer. The company deals with thousands of loggers, each of whom in turn is dealing with multiple landowners. As a result, ISC’s wood supply comes from thousands of private landowners every year. According to Jason Stout, vice president of business development at ISC, sustainability has become an increasingly hot topic at all points along the chain in recent times.

“We’ve been involved in different initiatives over the years, with universities and forestry associations. The sustainability movement has covered education and outreach and research. There’ve been initiatives from distilleries and cooperages, but there’s a lot more momentum in this sector now than there’s ever been,” he said. “It’s great to see the resources people are putting into sustainability.”
Maker’s Mark barrels

In addition to the academic initiatives ISC has participated in, there are projects that are more hands-on in the field – or rather, the forest. One particularly forward-thinking program is a joint undertaking with Heaven Hill. In 2020, the companies teamed up to sponsor loggers to complete sustainability certification through their respective state association logging programs. So far, more than 120 loggers have been certified.

“The loggers are the ones guiding landowners in terms of what to cut and how to harvest. The loggers are the ones out doing the work in the forest,” Stout said. “They want to get more educated, more involved. They’re on the frontline with landowners – they’re saying, ‘here’s what we need to log to foster the future of white oak’. A lot of landowners are thinking more long-term now than they used to, and the younger generation embraces sustainability differently than the older.”
Educating loggers about sustainability is vital to the future of white oak conservation

Sustainability certification is not an obligation for loggers, but the more one dives into the topic, the more that seems questionable – especially as climate change impacts more and more natural resources. “There’s no requirement to get certified, so there needs to be an incentive,” said Rachel Nally, Heaven Hill environmental and sustainability manager. “We’ll pay for classes and a hotel room to incentivise loggers to go to classes. They learn safe practices and best management practices from a forestry perspective, like how to cut a tree in a way that fosters further regrowth of trees and prevents erosion into a nearby stream, how to identify wetlands and preserve those while logging. We focus on the barrel, the end of the tree’s life, but we need to think further on the beginning side. How are we managing their growing? We don’t touch that, but these loggers do, so if we can help them be more educated, that helps the forest.”

In addition to the scientific research taking place at universities, sustainability is motivating smaller distilleries to engage in ambitious projects. One particularly exciting project is Westland Distillery’s Garryana American Single Malt Whiskey, the first in its Native Oak Series, which launched in 2016. In an effort to explore the terroir of the Pacific Northwest from every angle, the Seattle distillery known for its extensive work with heritage grains hunted down Quercus garryana, a white oak species that grows exclusively in a 300-mile strip between Portland and Vancouver. Its brittle wood, which is prone to twists because of the way the tree grows, makes it a challenge for coopers to work with, but the effort pays off in spades with the unusual flavour it imparts to the whiskey. Because of its scarcity, the law prohibits cutting down the trees, so Westland co-founder and distiller Matt Hofmann has to go in pursuit of it.

“All the stuff we buy is naturally fallen wood – maybe it came down in windstorms – or ‘hazard wood,’ a tree getting so old and close to dying, maybe it’s grown over someone’s house, so you have to take it down before it has a chance of falling. They don’t come from a sustainable forest. We don’t have that luxury of source material,” said Hofmann. To him, the paucity of ‘Garry’ oak signifies the loss of a valuable cog in the Pacific Northwest’s ecosystem, so he partnered with Forterra, a Washington-based conservation nonprofit, to work on a replanting a 10-acre Garry oak savanna. It’s a case of conservation as a happy by-product of flavour fascination.
The Slane Estate

However, it is not just the bourbon industry that depends on a steady supply of new American oak. Since used US whiskey barrels are shipped off to distilleries in Ireland, Scotland, Japan and elsewhere, Quercus alba is, in no uncertain terms, the lifeforce of the global whiskey industry. Nonetheless, distilleries in the UK and Ireland are engaged in sustainability-minded projects of their own.
Slane Castle

Alex Conyngham is the co-founder of Slane, a distillery is retrofitted into 18th-century horse stables next to the castle on his family’s estate in County Meath. Brown-Forman acquired the distillery in 2015 and opened the distillery in 2017, so the team have not only always had easy access to oak barrels from the parent company’s cooperage, they’ve had the opportunity to customise casks. Despite this, Slane is also committed to maintaining an abundant and healthy oak supply on the property, just not necessarily for future barrels – yet. The 1,500-acre Slane Castle Estate encompasses 350 acres of woodland, thus it’s little surprise that green initiatives are a priority.

“As a company, Brown-Forman takes a strong interest in how wood is sourced and managed sustainably,” said Conyngham. “We’re looking at how we’re able to plant and manage new and existing woodland to reduce carbon emissions and to better enhance biodiversity. Our woodland management plan includes additional planting every year and the first step is planting 14,000 new trees, the bulk of those alongside the main barley fields.”
Planting seedlings with Buffalo Trace

Since woodlands trap and hold carbon, Conyngham plans to measure just how much is being captured and use it to offset the distillery’s emissions. He casually notes that Irish oak is the property’s primary species, so there’s always the possibility of building native-oak casks one day.

“The whole notion is that [my wife] Carina and myself – and Dad before us – are custodians here to protect the land for the next generation and beyond,” Conyngham said. “In order to do that, we need to look at what we’re taking and what we’re giving back. We want to find ways to give back and nurture the land. It’s a humbling thing to be involved in.”
The Slane Distillery

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Whyte and Mackay has embarked on a sweeping program to explore wood management on Fasque Estate, the 8,500-acre property on which the Fettercairn Distillery is located. It starts by replanting an ancient forest with 13,000 sessile Quercus petraea and pedunculate Quercus robur saplings.

“We’re not just looking at wood as a commodity. We want to go above and beyond, planting and replanting to build up the forest in Scotland and fund rewilding programs,” said whisky maker Gregg Glass, who conceived the program. “It’s about environment in a holistic manner,” he continued. “We’re looking at the undergrowth – the wild herbs and flowers and how they benefit the area. We’re thinking about bringing animal species back to wild areas that have diminished over centuries within the forest.”

The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable source of native oak for whisky casks. To this end, Glass is working closely with Scottish sawmills and has his sights set beyond the expected research on the wood’s impact on the maturation flavour profile. He’s fascinated by innovation and problem solving: Scottish oak has many imperfections, so while cutting staves from a plank is feasible, getting a barrel head is a different story – perhaps it’ll lead to unconventional cask sizes or hybrid barrels. He’s also considering how various industries adjacent to or even outside Scotch whisky might benefit from a meticulously managed wood program, which would allow Scottish oak use to move beyond only wind-felled trees. Brewers and other Scottish spirits producers are the most obvious beneficiaries, but he also mentions furniture makers, who can work with wood that has imperfections, and even papermakers, who can use oak by-products of coopering.

“Sustainability is also about clever cask management, but one of the goals is not just for us to create a one-off malt then go into mainstream whisky, but doing it in a responsible way,” Glass said. “We don’t want the Scotch whisky industry to tip the balance on pricing for Scottish oak. We have arrangements: if we start increasing price for other trades and crafts, we need to be reined in. That’s what I classify as sustainable: the sustainability of crafts and traditional practices. Our responsibility as a business is to help support smaller and related industries. It’s really a highlight for the Scottish oak program.”

For now, we wait – those oak trees will take a lifetime to grow, after all. What’s important is that white oak sustainability has at last taken root in the whiskey industry.
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