The Future of America's Bourbon Barrels Could Be in Danger

America is reportedly using more white oak than it will be able to produce under current conditions.

Empty bourbon barrels outside of a distillery
Photo: David A Birkbeck / Getty Images

For generations, American white oak has been the go-to wood to make the barrels used for aging bourbon and other American whiskies. But according to a new report, without intervention, American white oak supplies could begin to significantly dwindle over the next decade.

The White Oak Initiative — a "diverse coalition of partners" that includes members from the academic, government, and private sectors — was created to advocate for the long-term sustainably of American white oak. Understandably, among its many backers are a number of big spirits companies like Brown-Forman, Sazerac, and Beam Suntory since white oak plays such an important role in bourbon production, which is worth $8.6 billion in Kentucky alone. (Beyond whiskey, the wood can also be used for wine and other spirits, as well as things like furniture and flooring.)

The worry is that, despite currently growing in over 100 million acres of forest, American white oak trees aren't regenerating quickly enough to keep up with demand. "It's valuable for a number of wildlife species; it's valuable for economic use and as a big part of our forest component," Jeff Stringer, chair of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Kentucky and co-founder of the White Oak Initiative, said according to the Kentucky business magazine The Lane Report. "It anchors a lot of what is going on in our forests and resources we get off of it."

A recent assessment from the group found that 75 percent of all white oaks acres could be classified as mature, which actually isn't ideal for growing new trees since they can struggle under the shade of a canopy. As a result, 60 percent of these acres had no white oak seedlings and about 87 percent had no white oak saplings. The White Oak Initiative said that without intervention, other tree varieties like beech and maple would thrive in these areas instead, further boxing out new oak trees.

"And that goes on forever unless something happens," Stringer continued. "What we are seeing here in the loss of our oaks and white oaks is related to that: That natural evolution of the forest under different conditions than when they started out."

But what's different now? Tom Martin — who recently retired as the president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation — attempted to explain the situation in a 2019 op-ed for The Hill. "Due to the popularity of bourbon, combined with ecological challenges and more, the demand for white oak logs is outpacing the regeneration of new young white oak trees for the future," he wrote. "Moreover, our existing forests are struggling. Insects and disease are both widespread. Climate-induced events are happening more often. And a lack of management is leaving too many small trees that are competing with young white oak seedlings."

Finally, Martin explained, "Adding one more layer to the dynamic — white oak forests are comprised of a patchwork of different ownerships, with the majority being owned by private individuals and families. These forest owners care about their land and want to help. But caring for one parcel of land is not enough to have an impact on this tree species."

Alex Alvarez — chief production and sustainability officer for Brown Forman, which has set a target to get 50 percent of its logs from sustainably managed forests by 2035 — spoke about improving harvesting practices when talking to The Lane Report. "One of the things we are working on with this White Oak Initiative is to say, 'How do we find a way to incentivize landowners to care for their forests in a manner that allows white oaks to continue to thrive,'" he explained.

"The White Oak Initiative helps to ensure that policymakers know that white oak is important, that money needs to be there from the federal government," Stringer added, "to provide farmers and woodland owners with money to help do [sustainable] practices."

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