Environment

Demand for bourbon is putting pressure on the population of Kentucky’s white oak trees, which are used to make staves for whiskey barrels.

Forestry and bourbon experts called for creating incentives for landowners to better manage their privately-owned forests at a legislative hearing on Thursday.

White Oak treepublic domain

White Oak Tree

Jason Underwood, government relations representative for Buffalo Trace-owner Sazerac, said the company is starting to have trouble finding enough wood.

“Just for our projected needs right now — and we don’t think two years down the road or four years down the road, we’re thinking 20 years down the road — we need a forest the size of Rhode Island populated solely with white oak just for us,” Underwood said.

Underwood said the company will put several hundreds of thousands of bourbon-filled barrels into storage next year and predicted 15 percent growth in production each of the next 20 years.

Distilleries in the state filled more than 1.8 million barrels with bourbon last year according to the Kentucky Distillers Association.

Bourbon distillers require brand new, freshly charred barrels for each batch. Once they’re done with the barrels they’re sometimes reused by scotch whiskey or craft beer makers on the secondary market.

Jeffrey Stringer, a forestry professor at the University of Kentucky, said Kentucky’s white oak population isn’t in an immediate crisis, but the perfect trees for barrel making are hard to come by in most forests.

“They might have white oak trees in it but they might not be high enough quality to make a stave log,” Stringer said.

“Imperfections” like branches that create knots in staves aren’t ideal for barrel making, meaning more and more of the remaining white oak population is made of lower-grade trees.

“While with some of our grades we’re growing lots more than we’re cutting, when you get into that higher quality, all of the sudden now we’re cutting a little bit more than we’re growing,” Stringer said.

Stringer said the success of large white oak and other trees has created a “bottleneck” of forest growth by preventing sunlight from reaching white oak saplings.

He recommended establishing a management program that would encourage landowners to create more room for white oak trees to grow in order to speed up growth.

Underwood from Sazerac also recommended changing logging policies in Daniel Boone National Forest, which he says has been limited to logging in “sick areas” and for the purpose of wildlife habitats.

“We’re not looking to go in and clear-cut the Daniel Boone but they’re not using the Boone for part of its intended purpose,” Underwood said.

It takes about 75 years for white oak trees to mature.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.