Skip to main content

The white oak tree is in danger, and so is bourbon — here’s what the industry is doing about it

We're making more white oak barrels than we can sustain

Bourbon barrels
Katherine Conrad/Unsplash

If you’ve ever looked into the process of making whiskey (specifically bourbon), you know that there are a lot of rules and regulations, but (on top of the ingredients themselves) there are few steps more important than the aging process. Equally invaluable is the actual wood the bourbon is matured in. While some distillers experiment with other woods for extra aging and finishing, white oak is the only acceptable barrel for straight bourbon. This is why it’s so discouraging to learn about a new report that says that whiskey makers are starting to run out of viable trees.

Something must be done quickly, or soon you might either not be able to get your hands on your favorite bourbon — or you’ll have to pay an uncomfortable amount to get it. You still don’t understand? Let’s start with a little refresher about what makes a bourbon.

How bourbon is made

While whiskey (spelled ‘whisky’ everywhere but the United States and Ireland) is made all over the world from Scotland to Taiwan and everywhere in between, you can only make bourbon in the U.S. America’s “native spirit” is also governed by a few unflinching rules and regulations.

To be considered a bourbon, first and foremost, it must be made in the U.S. It doesn’t, however, need to be made in Kentucky, regardless of what you might have heard. That being said, roughly 95% of all bourbon is still made in the Bluegrass State.

It also must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn (although many distillers lean much more heavily on the sweet flavor of corn and bring that percentage up). The rest of the grains are up to the distiller, with barley, rye, and wheat being popular choices.

Bourbon must be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume), barreled at a maximum of 125 proof (62.5% ABV), and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV) and a maximum of 150 proof (75% ABV).

But this brings us back to the problem at hand. Above all else, bourbon must be matured in new, charred American oak barrels. While all the other steps are important, it’s aging in charred oak that gives your favorite bourbon its memorable nose and palate of caramel, vanilla beans, dried fruits, spices, and oak.

It’s not bourbon without the oak. Even if you follow every other rule, you can’t label it as bourbon without maturing it for at least two years in charred oak. It’s as simple as that.

The problem with white oak trees

Sadly, this extremely important step in the bourbon-making process is in serious danger and has been going on for decades. This is because white oak, also known as Queras alba, isn’t doing so well. And while it’s bad for bourbon and other businesses that use white oak, we still don’t even know how bad just yet. You see, you can’t just plant a tree and then have it magically grown overnight, harvest the wood, and make barrels. Just like making whiskey itself, you have to wait for the trees to mature before they’re suitable to be cut down to be made into whiskey barrels and casks.

According to a group of researchers, industry insiders, and government agencies called The White Oak Initiative, while there are more than 100 million acres of white oak throughout the United States, around 75 percent of it is mature. And while that is all well and good for making whiskey barrels right now, it’s bad news for future whiskey makers.

According to the Initiative, competing species — like maple and beech — are primarily responsible for the lack of young white oak trees. Climate change, invasive insects, disease, and behavioral change also play a part.

If the numbers continue to decline, in a decade or so there might be real difficulty getting wood for bourbon barrels.

Luckily, there is hope for the future. Among other initiatives, the University of Kentucky announced in 2021 that it would create the largest repository of American white oak trees in collaboration with famed bourbon brand Maker’s Mark. First, they collected 300 families of white oak and began planting them at Maker’s Mark’s Star Hill Farm. Then they planted 1.700 trees, and then another 2,200 in 2022, before adding another 5,000 this past spring.

And Maker’s Mark isn’t the only one. Old Forester Distillery, Buffalo Trace, and more all have their own conservation plans in place. Here’s hoping they’re successful.

Editors' Recommendations

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
This new Wild Turkey bourbon is the brand’s highest-proof release ever (and its most expensive)
You can still get your hands on this limited-edition bourbon
Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey is well-known for its unmatched value-to-price ratio. To name a few, popular expressions like Wild Turkey 101 and Wild Turkey Rare Breed are bargain-priced, high-quality sippers that belong on every whiskey fan’s home bar cart. But just because the brand makes myriad low-priced expressions, bourbon aficionados still often look to the brand for long-aged, limited-edition expressions. Some of which carry a fairly large price tag.

The newest must-try expression from the iconic Kentucky-based distillery is called Wild Turkey Generations. The name is a reference to the fact that it’s the first collaboration between three generations of the Russell family (including the newly named Associated Blender Bruce Russell). The bourbon itself is a limited-edition blend of four hand-picked bourbons that were picked to create a sublime, nuanced flavor profile. Not only that, but the expression is non-chill filtered and bottled at barrel proof.

Read more
Bourbon fans: These 8 dark rums are great adds to your liquor cabinet (because they’re a lot like bourbon)
Bourbon enthusiasts may just switch allegiance
Dark Rum

Autumn chugging towards winter like a pumpkin-spiced latte-fueled train. It’s inevitable. The weather is growing colder, and the days are getting shorter, regardless of whether or not you live somewhere with seasons. Generally, this means we crack open bottles of our favorite bourbon, rye whiskey, Japanese whisky, or single malt Scotch whisky and sip it slowly as we watch the leaves fall gently from the trees. But if you’re limiting yourself to just whisk(e)y this time of year, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. It would behoove you to add dark rum to your sipping rotation.

Don’t believe us? There are numerous dark rums perfectly suited for your whiskey-centric palate. Sure, rum is a sugarcane juice or molasses-based spirit. But when it’s aged for months or years in charred oak, familiar whiskey flavors like caramel, vanilla, oak, dried fruits, and spices are added.

Read more
This creative old-fashioned recipe has two bitters and a unique bourbon that give it a campfire feel
An old fashioned recipe that's perfect for winter
Bib & Tucker old fashioned

There are classic cocktails, and then there’s the old-fashioned. While the cocktail renaissance of the last few decades has unearthed many traditional cocktails and brought others back to the forefront (like the daiquiri, gimlet, Manhattan, Tom Collins, negroni, and others), none are as timeless as the old-fashioned. This whiskey-based drink is as popular as ever.

The aptly named cocktail is a very boozy drink with a whiskey base. Recipes call for rye or bourbon; what you use is entirely up to you. Since whiskey is the star of the show and the prominent flavor, the drink will be quite different depending on the whiskey you (or your favorite bartender) select. Rye whiskey-based old fashioneds will have a spicy, peppery bite, while bourbon-based old fashioneds will have a sweet corn base. Both are great options.

Read more