The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Whiskey business: Help UT save white oaks for your liquor drinks

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UT forestry efforts benefit whiskey and ecological chasers

KNOXVILLE — Volunteers, distilleries and two universities came together this fall to collect white oak acorns to ensure the survival of the species for commercial and ecological purposes.

It was a key part of a conservation effort started by distilleries worried about the future of oak barrels and casks used to age whiskey and bourbon.

It’s about more than that though, as white oaks have many uses not just for people but for an estimated 2,000 other species, including bats, birds, turkeys, deer, rabbits and hundreds of butterflies and moths. But because the trees are slow to grow, they may be at risk, especially as the region grapples with the uncertain outcomes of climate change.

“Of the upland hardwood species, none may have as much value as the white oak (Quercus alba),” according to a YouTube video about white oaks from UT.

The project in Tennessee was a joint effort of the Tennessee Division of Forestry, the Tennessee Forestry Association and University of Tennessee Extension.

UT Institute of Agriculture described these trees as valuable for both wood products and for wildlife. But they may have trouble regenerating.

“We need your help! This initiative is asking Tennessee’s civic organizations, forestry groups, landowners and anyone interested to collect white oak acorns,” according to the University of Tennessee.

“The acorns will be planted and evaluated at the East Tennessee Nursery in Delano, Tennessee, and resulting quality, white oak seedlings will be used in reforestation efforts.” The program accepted acorns from Oct. 15 through Nov. 15.

Professor of Silviculture and Forest Management Wayne K. Clatterbuck told Hellbender Press white oaks are also valuable for the ecosystem and many human uses, but this conservation effort started from an unusual place: the liquor industry. Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon have soared in global sales, he said.

The white oak’s unique tylosis (a bubble-like formation on the cavity of the tree) and cellular structure make it ideal for allowing liquid to soak through it in a way other tree species don’t.

The distillers, Clatterbuck said, worried whether their operations would stay sustainable and commissioned a study from the University of Kentucky. That study showed that there will be enough white oak to supply barrels for the next 20 to 30 years, but still mentioned future concerns about white oak sustainability.

The distillers have stayed involved. On the steering committee at present is Greg Roshkowski, vice president and general manager of Brown-Forman, the company that makes Jack Daniels, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, Slane and Benriach.

Another distilling company involved in the sustainability initiative is Sazerac, and Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Elizabeth Wise is also on the steering committee.

Various other universities, organizations and companies support the effort to preserve white oaks, either on the board of directors or as financial supporters, listed on the official website.

“The White Oak Initiative was inaugurated, funded mostly by the distillers, to provide educational information and assistance to private forest owners, who own most of the forest land in these states, to regenerate white oak in future forests,” Clatterbuck said.

“Although white oak for barrels was the initial concern, white oak is a keystone species in our hardwood forests for wildlife habitat, acorns, flaky bark for bats, and for other wood products because of its dense wood.”

White oaks are one of the slowest growing tree species. Faster growing trees tend to outgrow and displace them. In the 1940s through the 1970s, thinning, burning and grazing allowed for more white oaks to grow, reducing the canopy from blocking their light. Now, however, the canopy above the forest is more likely to be full, making new white oak tree growth more difficult.

“My role is to provide the educational information to private forest owners and to professional foresters to regenerate white oak, whether through artificial regeneration, planting — usually very expensive with a lot of competing vegetation control — or natural regeneration that usually involves establishing white oak regeneration in intermediate light environment to give white oak a head-start in growth over competing species before the regeneration harvest,” Clatterbuck said.

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