scottish oak whisky

Scotch: Taking local oak seriously

05 May, 2022

While exotic woods from around the world have gained popularity for finishing Scotch, indigenous oak looks to be making a comeback for some producers, finds Shay Waterworth.

During the peak of the Roman Empire Scotland was referred to as The Great Wood of Caledon due to the swarms of Scots pine trees which covered the majority of the country. However, over time this once-great woodland has been decimated and now Scotland’s main timber source is Sitka spruce, a species which was introduced post World War II to increase the country’s reserves. 

But the Scottish oak, one of the most forgotten native species, could be on the verge of a comeback thanks to the Scotch whisky industry. 

According to Scotland’s Forestry Strategy for 2019-29, the landscape is now unrecognisable compared to 4000BC. “Without human intervention, it is likely that much of Scotland would be covered by tree species of a range of types, including Scots pine and birch in the north and east, and oakwoods in the warm and wetter west,” reads the strategy. “Ever since the first foresters entered Scotland’s ancient wildwood over 6,000 years ago, Scotland’s trees and woodlands have been felled and harvested. 

“As our population grew, more wood from forests was harvested and many forests disappeared, making space for agriculture, people’s homes and infrastructure. By the early 20th century, forest cover in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the UK, was reduced to around 5%. This chronic lack of trees and timber was recognised as a strategic problem for the country, and so the Forestry Act of 1919 was introduced to address the issue.” 

While plans have been in place to rejuvenate native species, Scottish oak remains relatively rare in comparison to years gone by, but it’s starting to gain popularity within the local whisky industry. Generally Scotch producers import ex-bourbon barrels made from American oak as there’s a glut in supply from the States given that bourbon requires new casks be used in production. The trend of finishing whisky in casks sourced from exotic locations, from niche wine regions right through to tequila casks, also leaves local Scottish wood surplus to requirement, but this is slowly changing. 

Gregg Glass (pictured), master whisky maker & blender at Whyte & Mackay, has been an advocate of using local oak ever since launching King of Trees under his experimental brand The Whisky Works, which was founded in 2017. The expression is a Highland blended malt matured in a cask made from wind-felled trees in the Scottish Highlands which were air dried for three years. Just less than 15% of the blend is made up of Scottish oak-aged whisky, but that’s enough to leave a significant mark on the whisky, according to Glass. 

“For me water does bugger all to the flavour, barley does to an extent, but most comes from the wood, which is coming from abroad from the cheapest available sources. I think it’s bizarre that the industry uses barrels from all over the world when we have it on our doorstep. 

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