White oak crisis 4-13-2022

American white oak is unique to the United States, essential to bourbon production, important in wine production, and threatened.

There is no snap-your-fingers solution. White oaks need 60-90 years to mature into trees suitable for barrel production. We may have as little as a 30-year supply.

Jackie Zykan, master taster for Old Forester Bourbon, notes: “American white oak is synonymous with bourbon for me. Using a different kind of wood would change the flavor entirely. The wood has a high vanillin content, oak lactone, and wood sugars. Very different than other woods. It also helps give American bourbon its amber hue.”

The wine industry uses white oak but is not as dependent upon it as the bourbon industry. American white oak tends to be more dense and less porous than French oak. American oak allows more of the tree to be used in barrel making. Compared to French oak, American white oak is higher in lactones and vanillin, which imparts sweeter flavors of vanilla and coconut. French oak has more tannins. Winemakers often finish their wines in a mixture of American and French oak for this reason.

Winemakers can use English and Hungarian oak, Italian chestnut, stainless steel, concrete, and amphora to finish wine—albeit each with different results. The wine world is not in the panic of bourbon/whiskey world, but winemakers certainly are concerned.

Both industries responded by forming the White Oak Initiative. While there are about 104 million acres of white oak forestland, some 75 percent of those trees are classified mature. Surveys show 60 percent of American white oak acreage has no white oak seedlings and 87 percent no white oak saplings. Other trees, mainly maple and beech, are taking over.

Involved parties responded. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey pledged to plant one million white oak trees over the next five years. Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, and Sazerac pledged to source 50 percent of their barrels from sustainably managed forests by 2035. All well and good, and we may dodge the barrel bullet. But it will be a near-run thing.

Tasting notes:

• Hammeken Cellars Gotas de Mar Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain 2020: Excellent example of albariño made by a cutting-edge Spanish wine operation with wide distribution. It is light, dry, superb acidity. $18-22 Link to my review

• Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut, Anderson Valley 2015: Deliciously complex special occasion wine. Elegant, luxurious, rich, polished. $47-65 Link to my review

Last round: The broom was late for work. “I’m sorry, I over swept.” Wine time.