Shortage of white oak trees a truly American phenomenon

Experts say sudden oak death poses no threats to humans, animals or food sources. (Ohio DNR Division of Forestry/Ohio DNR)

I heard a very interesting fact at a recent meeting of the Ohio Wildlife Council. It had little to do with wildlife – at least directly. But it did have to do with forests and should be of interest to anyone who loves the woods.

Next time you are out for a stroll in the forest and spot a white oak tree, here’s a fact to know:

There’s a high demand for white oak lumber that is putting pressure on sawmills and logging crews all over the country. The reasons are numerous: foreign consumption and the current building boom, as well as a growing consumption of bourbon worldwide. It is estimated that bourbon drinking is jumping 15 percent annually.

For the non-whiskey drinkers, bourbon must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels in order to truly be called bourbon. In the U.S., it’s a law.

While there’s no shortage of white oak trees across the country – one source said there’s an estimated 5.2 billion in the U.S. – there is a shortage of loggers to cut the trees, as well as mills to turn them into the raw wood necessary for barrel-making or cooperage.

So many loggers and mills went out of business when the building industry went south in 2007-2008 that there is now more demand than the timber industry is equipped to supply.

The end result is that the price of a new, white oak barrel is climbing. The cost of a 53-gallon barrel jumped from $150 to $250 in recent years. The price of used barrels – many of which are shipped overseas to make scotch and tequila – has also jumped.

Big distillers like Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill are suffering less since they have widespread supply chains for their barrels. But the blossoming craft distillery industry – there are an estimated 600 craft distilleries operating nationwide – is paying even more for the small barrels it needs.

If this trend continues, there’s a threat that stands of mature white oaks will be depleted faster than new plantations can grow to harvest stage. Congressional representatives from Kentucky have lobbied for more white oak consideration in recent farm bills.

So the next time you order a bourbon in a restaurant or take a walk in the woods, think about what it takes to create a bottle of the All-American alcoholic drink and the forest industries that work to put it on your table.

Categories: Ohio – Jane Beathard

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