One of the things I like about my blog is that a lot of my friends in the industry read my blog. When one, Dave Scheurich, the retired plant manager at Woodford Reserve, contacted me with a subject for my blog, I listened. Dave is an old friend and a person I highly respect for his knowledge and ability of the industry. Dave sent me a link about the use of oak trees for making barrels. He feels that with the growth in the industry, the supply of oak trees for making barrels may be in trouble. 

The trees are being harvested more quickly and the growth rings are not as close together in the younger trees and this is causing a change in the barrel dynamics. I agree with his concern. Oak trees for barrel staves are like aging whiskey. It takes many years for the trees to mature enough to make barrel staves and they are a long range investment.

Oak trees have always been a vital part of the Bourbon industry. This became an important issue after 1938 when using new barrels became a requirement for making straight whiskey in America. When the United States entered the Second World War, the need to conserve trees became apparent and the industry increased the size of barrels from 48 gallons to 53 gallons to save wood. This was the largest size increase they could make and fit the barrels in the existing warehouse rack system. It worked and decreased the number of trees being used to make barrels. 

After the war, Schenley started investing in planting oak to ensure the supply of oak for their cooperages. Even seventy years ago. The industry was worried about the supply of oak for barrels.

The decline of whiskey sales in the 1960s lasted through the 1980s and the supply of oak was less of a concern. The modern growth of the whiskey industry in the United States has brought the issue back to the forefront. 

Recently, the industry has become involved with the White Oak Initiative to replant more oak trees and to look at the future of barrels. It is a step in the right direction. One of the problems is that there seems to be a decline in the natural reproduction of white oak trees. There are less sapling trees occurring naturally. The trees are being harvested at a quicker rate and the number of new trees is declining. 

Dave suggested that maybe the reuse of barrels could be relaxed, allowing used barrels by shaving 1/8th or 7/16th of an inch off used staves and re-charring them for a second use in making whiskey. I would think that even if they allowed barrels with some new and some reconditioned staves would help decrease the use of oak in making barrels. Or maybe allow for the reuse of the barrel heads. 

I would also suggest that maybe an old answer might apply to saving oak – make larger barrels. With so many distilleries moving to palletized warehouses, why not increase barrel size to save oak? It worked during the war, why not today? Make 60 or even 65 gallon barrels for palletized warehouses. It decreases the number of trees being used. Figure out the maximum size of barrels that would fit four or six barrels on a pallet and make barrels of that size. 

Oak is a vital ingredient in making Bourbon and Rye whiskeys in America. The industry knows this and is taking steps for the future. Even a small decrease in the number of trees being harvested today would help ensure the future of the industry. It is time to start thinking about the future and make sure that the great whiskeys we are enjoying today will be around for generations to come.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller