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Demand for Bourbon Causes Wood Worries in Kentucky

Stacked inside warehouses around Kentucky are millions of bourbon barrels. The name of the distillery stamped on the casks differs from warehouse to warehouse, as does the aging whiskey inside.

But each barrel has at least one thing in common: the type of wood it is made from.

That wood is white oak, a water-tight wood distilleries need and federal law requires to age bourbon. But there is not enough white oak to meet demand, say bourbon industry representatives who testified yesterday before the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Environment.

“We need forests the size of Rhode Island populated with white oak just for our use,” said Jason Underwood with Sazerac, the parent company of Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792. Underwood said his company’s demand for white oak has reached “crisis” proportions as Buffalo Trace and the company’s other distilleries ramp up bourbon production each year.

“Just for Buffalo Trace… I can’t tell you how many barrels we’ll put into storage next year but it’s in the multiple hundreds of thousands. We project in the next 20 years 15 percent growth every year in our bourbon production,” said Underwood.

Other distilleries are also likely feeling the weight of the oak issue as bourbon production records continue to be broken. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) says over 1.8 million barrels were filled with Kentucky bourbon just last year, breaking records dating back 49 years.

At least Kentucky bourbon’s distilleries are close to the source of the wood they need. Kentucky is a leading producer of white oak, which is the second fastest growing hardwood resource in the country, according to committee testimony from worldwide cooperage leader Independent Stave Company. The company has two plants in Kentucky employing nearly 500 full time workers and will open another facility in Benton in 2017 employing another 40 full time workers.

But fast-growing can be a relative term in the forest where, University of Kentucky forester Dr. Jeffery Stringer said, it can take up to 75 years for white oak saplings to mature. Stringer said there is a “bottleneck” of forest growth that has led to an overgrowth of large white oak at the expense of white oak seedlings and saplings. That overgrowth of large oak can be good in the short term but not necessarily the long term, Stringer explained.

To improve medium to long-term supplies, Stringer said that foresters must do more to educate landowners on the importance of timber harvesting and other techniques that make room for new trees to grow.

“That (growth) can and does work with good forest management,” said Stringer.

Rep. Jill York (R-Grayson) asked Stringer how the state is educating private landowners about the overall value of white oak on their property. He said it can be a struggle to reach them – there are over 100,000 private landowners with over 10 acres of forest or more—but that the state Division of Forestry “responds to anybody who asks and requests help.”

Another solution to keeping white oak sustainable is to have more logging in the national forests, says Underwood. He said the timber in the Daniel Boone National Forest is often left unlogged although, he said, national forests are supposed to be working forests and “are being treated like national parks” with millions fewer logs being harvested than federal regulation allows.

“When they do log, they are often logging areas that are not necessarily the best for business purposes” which leaves low-grade white oak for the bourbon industry, said Underwood.

To get the best white oak—according to Justin Nichols, a log procurement manager with Independent Stave who also testified before the committee—sunlight must reach the forest floor to nurture tree seedlings and saplings. And getting sunlight to the forest floor requires logging to push back the dense canopy of tall trees so new trees can grow, he explained.

“Forests need to be actively managed in order to thrive and provide both environmental and economic benefits,” Nichols said.

From the Legislative Research Commission

Photo via Wiki Commons by Decatur Wine & Spirits