Oak species, grain size and toasting all help mould the flavour of the dram in your glass.
‘Let the light in,’ says George Broadhurst. ‘Light is life in a forest. It feeds biodiversity.’ Somewhere deeper in the grove, a woodpecker drills, while the eyes of young deer warily regard us from their shelter. We’re in a managed plantation at Killearn, near Glasgow, where George is the forester, gazing up the trunk of an oak tree selected for potential felling. If the wood is suitable, it will be used to make a cask for Whyte & Mackay.
Time expands when you look at a tree, unravelling backwards to when it was planted – this tree would have gone into the ground in 1880 – then leaps forwards to an unimaginable future. The oak saplings which will be planted here this year won’t be harvested until 2140. Laying down whisky for use in 30 years is nothing compared to planning and managing a forest.
I started to thinking of all I’d been told about Scottish oak: some folks said that there wasn’t any, others claimed that, if there was, it was unsuitable for whisky. And yet, here it is being felled, seasoned and coopered, one element in a wide-ranging project initiated by Whyte & Mackay’s blender Gregg Glass.
Forest Folklore: Scottish oak does exist, but its presence in the whisky world will only ever be modest
Each forest is part of a complex network of roots and fungi, a mycorrhiza, sharing food, nutrients, and resources, communicating and warning. A forest is not a collection of trees and plants, but a single organism -– the Wood Wide Web.
This linkage has not been mirrored above the leaf litter. Symbioses have been fractured as economics and warfare impinged on Scotland’s ancient hardwood forests. As they have declined (replaced by faster-growing softwood monocultures) so sawmills have disappeared, and cooperages have become places for repair rather than cask construction. Building a sustainable future for Scottish oak necessitates creating new connections.
For Glass to find the oak, he first must speak with landowners and foresters, seek out the dwindling number of small-scale specialist sawmills, explaining the specific requirements needed for building a cask which they may have not encountered before, then work out which cooperages can process the wood.
There’s also the matter of what to do with the rest of the tree. Only a small amount of the wood can be used for casks, so on a long night drive to Invermoriston we try to think up other ways of using oak (other than firewood). There’s alliances with furniture- and cabinet-makers, but what of ink, dyes, perfume, tanning, cocktail bitters, tiny cups made from acorns (it was getting late by the time that one emerged)?
If it had been light outside we’d have been revelling in the wildness and emptiness of our surroundings, the bare hills, the heather, the isolated lochs, those solitary pines. Instead we should turn that on its head and see it as an unnatural landscape, rather than a natural one; a desert, denuded and devastated by deer and sheep.
Giving back: Replanting schemes like Trees for Life are vital to maintaining Scottish oak forests
‘This is what a Scottish woodland should look like,’ says Alex Baxter the next morning. We’re at Dundreggan where the charity Trees For Life (for which he’s corporate development officer) is revitalising the Scottish wild forest. We’re standing beneath a waterfall among a rich layering of bracken and heather, juniper, birch, oak and pine. Trees For Life shows what is possible and by also working with them, Glass has shifted the project away from being for commercial gain – a gimmick, a PR exercise – into something richer.
Later that day, we’re at the Speyside Cooperage to see its apprentices assembling Scottish oak casks and ends. ‘Scottish oak?’ says general manager Andrew Russell. ‘It’s interesting… because it’s Scottish. There’s no reason not to do it, and we’re the only ones able to do it because we have the equipment.’ He is now amassing a reserve of oak for the future – and the wider industry.
Though the species may be the same [Q.petraea and Q. robur] as in mainland Europe, how will each express itself in terms of flavour? Only time will tell. Perhaps the aroma might not be substantially different, but that wouldn’t negate the need to use and plant oak in Scotland. It should be done because it is good for biodiversity, because it is the right thing to do.
‘You don’t find out until you open it,’ Kenny Brodie, sawmill owner and bespoke joinery specialist had told me as we looked at the inside of a trunk the day before. ‘What looks promising might be unuseable.’ The same applies here. You don’t know what might happen until you try it, but that’s not reason not to do it.
Scottish oak won’t compete in volume terms with the US or mainland Europe, but that’s not the point. This isn’t whisky riding into town saying ‘we will save you’, but being another element in the slow, precarious revival of the country’s forests as they move away from the dark blanket of Velcro-needled Sitka spruce and return to a richer biodiversity. It is a reconnection. Let the light in.
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