American white oak is a key ingredient in bourbon production. During aging, the charred staves that form the walls of barrels impart the distinctive vanilla and caramel flavors that have become synonymous with America’s native spirit. So much so that some may believe bourbon must age in American oak. It doesn’t — the TTB dictates only that bourbon must age in “charred new oak containers.”
Still, bourbon producers overwhelmingly favor barrels made from American white oak. Perhaps because of this distinction, it’s an aspect of production we’ve come to take for granted. Rarely do we consider the workings and sustainability of America’s white oak industry, despite it being vital to the very production of one of the nation’s most popular spirits. To some, these may seem like esoteric, insider topics. But now, more than ever, they deserve recognition.
Last year, distillers in Kentucky alone filled some 1.7 million charred, new oak barrels. That total represented a four-fold increase on the number of barrels filled just 20 years prior. Despite this, conservation groups say the volume of white oak growing in the country is greater than ever. In short, there are no near-term fears over barrel shortages.
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But while white oak stocks are currently healthy, the size and age of the trees concern conservationists and multiple industries, including American distillers. Without proper management, they say, the American white oak industry runs the risk of production shortfalls in decades to come. Given that it can take up to 100 years to produce a barrel-quality oak tree, action now is essential.
The Fragmented Nature of America’s Oak Industry
Scientifically known as Quercus alba, American white oak grows across the country, though commercial production of the trees is focused in certain regions. “The prime white oak-producing areas range from the state of Missouri all the way over to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia,” says Eric Sprague, vice president of forest restoration for conservation group American Forests. “The Ozarks to Appalachians, we call it.”
Within these states, and indeed across the U.S., the vast majority of the white oak that’s sold commercially grows on private land. Large timber companies own some of this land, but the lion’s share comes from plots owned by families and individuals, who may control anything from five acres to a couple of hundred acres. “It’s a very fragmented ownership base,” Sprague says. “The trend in the United States is for that parcel size to get smaller and smaller.”
The industry that processes white oak is similarly fragmented. The journey from forest to barrel sees loggers first procure trees from landowners, then sell to sawmills. After processing the wood into staves and barrel headings, sawmills sell to cooperages, which manufacture barrels according to specific requirements from distilleries and wineries.
The fragmented nature of the industry hasn’t stopped major players from emerging. Founded in 1912, Independent Stave Company (ISC) provides barrels to many of the nation’s leading distilleries. Within the barrel industry, it’s the closest example of a vertically integrated company. “The only thing we don’t do is cut down trees and pour the liquid inside of [barrels],” says Garret Nowell, ISC’s director of log procurement.
Nowell oversees a team of buyers that sources American white oak from 4,000 different suppliers — typically individual loggers — across the country. “We’ve got more oak now than we’ve ever had,” Nowell says, but procurement can still be a tricky business.
The Sustainability of the White Oak Industry
White oak typically represents around 17 percent of the total tree volume in a forest, Nowell explains. Of that, only 11 percent will be fit for barrel production — based on size and age. “It works out to about 2 percent of the entire forest that’s fit for cooperages,” he explains. Even then, only the bottom 12 feet of a qualifying tree will be used for manufacturing staves and barrel heads.
This is not to say that barrel production is an unsustainable process. “When we’re cutting the staves and heading, 60 percent of [the wood] gets sent on to the cooperage,” says Greg Roshkowski, director of wood planning, procurement, and processing at Brown-Forman. “The other 40 percent is going to be turned into chips or dust, which we’ll sell to paper mills or use for boiler fuel.”
Brown-Forman, whose portfolio includes leading American whiskey brands like Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, and Old Forester, is the only major distilled spirits company in the U.S. that produces its own barrels. Like ISC, Brown-Forman owns four sawmills and two cooperages. Those cooperages churn out between 750,000 to a million barrels annually. In a typical year, the company will buy 25 to 30 million feet of American white oak.
It’s a not-insignificant total, but a drop in the ocean for the overall hardwood industry. “Even though the bourbon industry has grown expansively over the last 10 years, [it still represents] about 2 to 3 percent of the entire hardwood industry in the U.S.,” Roshkowski says.
Despite these figures, Roshkoswi, Nowell, and Sprague all report concerns about the future of the American white oak industry. The issue is not supply — which currently exceeds demand — but forest regeneration.
“[White oak trees] are getting bigger and older at a greater rate than we’re taking out of the forest,” Sprague says. “But it’s the number of oaks growing in the seedling, sapling, and small tree stages that are missing.”
There are multiple reasons for this, though significant drivers include land-use patterns and harvesting practices. “One thing that we do poorly, we’ll go into forests, pick the biggest, tallest, and straightest trees, then harvest them all,” Sprague says.
This type of harvesting significantly impairs the ability of white oak to regenerate. It’s a species that requires a specific amount of sunlight to thrive, created through timber harvesting and canopy management techniques, Sprague explains. “If there’s too much light, oak can be outcompeted by fast-growing species, which will rise above the oak and shade it out,” he says. But not harvesting at all creates its own issues. “If there’s too little light, white oak again gets shaded out and will not regenerate, either,” Sprague says.
The continued success of American white oak, therefore, depends on improved land and canopy management. It’s not an overly complicated solution, but the fractured nature of woodland ownership complicates matters. “It takes a long time to communicate with landowners and educate them on what they can do,” Sprague says.
The White Oak Initiative
Formed in 2017 and spearheaded by the American Forest Foundation, the White Oak Initiative is leading the charge to ensure a sustainable future for white oak forests. It’s a large-scale network that spans multiple industries and institutions.
The initiative’s “steering committee” comprises universities, state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, trade associations, and businesses that rely on American oak, including Independent Stave Company, Brown-Forman, Sazerac, and Beam Suntory. As well as sitting on the committee, each of these four companies has made financial contributions to the cause.
“The challenges to ensure the sustainability of our oak forests are bigger than any one organization or company,” says Melissa Moeller, director of the White Oak Initiative. “The White Oak Initiative is an impressive effort by a diverse group of stakeholders to bring collective action and ensure sustainable white oak forests for the future.”
To achieve its goal of long-term sustainability, the White Oak Initiative has launched expansive research projects exploring the health, population, age, and diversity of the species. The initiative is also working to communicate these issues to landowners and provide them with the tools to implement better management practices. It’s no small order considering the nature of ownership and the sheer number of private landowners.
The initiative is still in its infancy, but it’s crucial that this work is taking place now, says Hank Stelzer, a professor at the University of Missouri with a Ph.D. in forestry. “The best time to plant a tree, they say, is 50 years ago. The second best time is today,” he says. “The same is true for managing forests.”
Ultimately, it’s a question of conservation. But in this particular instance, that conversation is not an argument over saving a natural resource versus the need to use it for economic prosperity. In this case, both parties are working in tandem.
“The White Oak Initiative is a great example of businesses, conservation, and universities coming together with a common purpose,” says Sprague. “The economic demand for white oak may be what protects it long-term.”