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  1. #1
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    Whiskey barrel wood composition

    I was doing some reading on this website:

    http://www.americanstavecompany.com/sellinglogs.html

    mostly because I had an idea of trying to grow white oak trees in my yard once I finally get settled down. It would be cool to be able to sell some logs to a stave company to be used in my favorite beverage, even though I'll be long gone most likely before they get old enough to harvest, but I'm getting off track a little bit here...

    Anyway, reading the website page where they have info for potential sellers of white oak logs for the manufacture of whiskey barrels. It states that they use white oak and chinkapin oak, which they claim is closely related to white oak. Now, I've taken some botany and forestry classes, but I'm no expert when it comes to wood and its composition. Apparently, these two types of oak are closely related, enough to make cross-breeding/interbreeding possible. Even though they are similar, they probably are not exactly the same, and therefore, may influence the taste of whiskey. It could also react differently to the charring process, no?

    After reading a few threads about how whiskey, "aint like it used to be," I got thinking about the wood used for barrels. There are quite a few factors that could come into play that would affect how the wood would influence the whiskey put inside it, for example, age of the tree, how fast it grows, soil conditions, etc. I also just listened to a WhiskyCast episode where BT master distiller Harlan Wheatly was talking about their seasoned oak, and how normally all the wood is grouped together no matter how old it is when it goes to be turned into staves. He says they dont keep track of any particular wood that may be better than others.

    All this got me thinking, how long have stave companies been using chinkapin oak, and since it all apparently gets lumped together in one big group at the sawmill, could this affect the taste or recently made whiskey? If using chinkapin is something relatively new, could this not affect the final taste of whiskey, making some of the older whiskey better stuff than the new? Am I reaching too far here?

    In keeping with the idea of the logs not being sorted, I doubt any of the barrels are made entirely of chinkapin oak, but some of these staves could be mixed in with with white oak and cause a slight difference.

    Anyway, I may shoot them an email and see if they are willing to disclose how long they've been using chinkapin oak, and also how much of their production is sold to distilleries. If they are willing to share this info, I will be sure to report back here. I've been thinking about this alot lately, possibly overthinking it!

    Eric

  2. #2
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    The whole chinkapin oak thing is new to me and interesting, but it seems likely that it's being used because any difference between it and white oak is negligible.

    The main difference in wood for barrels, then and now, is that now the trees are younger and essentially farm-raised, while in the past more or most of the wood was from older trees that grew wild.

  3. #3
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    I sent an email to Mr. Nichols at the American Stave Company asking him a few questions about how long they have been using chinkapin oak, percentage of overall production and when it was discovered, or decided that it was similar enough to white oak to used without any undesirable effects. I'll post back if and when I get a reply.

    Eric

  4. #4
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    Here is the response I received from Mr. Nichols from American Stave Company:

    Mr. Renfer,


    While we do not track the age of the logs I would guess the age range is between 40 – 120 years old. We buy based on size because age doesn’t necessarily determine size, the resources (soil, light, water etc.) have a much bigger influence on size.

    As far as I know we have always purchased chinkapin oak and we do not process or track them separately. I would guess we use less than 5% chinkapin oak.

    I hope I have answered your questions and please let me know if I can answer any other questions.

    Regards,
    Justin




  5. #5
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    All very interesting. I wonder what the average age of an oak tree was used to make a whiskey barrel in the 1800's. Probably it varied since old trees die, new ones grow around. Plus the effect of fires, which might clear out an old-growth area and make it a new one. In writing this I do not even know really how old an oak tree can be (its "typical" age) before it expires.

    I still think it would be interesting to taste bourbon aged, say 6 years in all-40 year old wood, and one aged the same number of years, in the same part of the warehouse, from the same make, from 120 year old lumber.

    Gary

  6. #6
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    Quote Originally Posted by Gillman View Post
    All very interesting. I wonder what the average age of an oak tree was used to make a whiskey barrel in the 1800's. Probably it varied since old trees die, new ones grow around. Plus the effect of fires, which might clear out an old-growth area and make it a new one. In writing this I do not even know really how old an oak tree can be (its "typical" age) before it expires.

    I still think it would be interesting to taste bourbon aged, say 6 years in all-40 year old wood, and one aged the same number of years, in the same part of the warehouse, from the same make, from 120 year old lumber.

    Gary
    In order for a fair sceintific test to be done there, the trees themselves would have to come from the same source- same soil, growing conditions, environment/weather patterns, &c. I have no doubt that there would be a difference- but I think there would also be a significant difference if the trees came from completely different locations with different soil and weather (wet/dry) conditions.
    Quote Originally Posted by SMOWK View Post
    I like to save up the charred bits in the bottom of the unfiltered stuff. When I have enough, I pour milk on it and eat it.

  7. #7
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    At the experimental whiskey tasting last Friday, Harlen Wheatley of BT said they are doing lots of experiments of the differences in aging of barrels made from trees with certain characteristics: e.g., age & ring growth, altitude, location (on the side of a hill, etc.) They apparently log all the specifics (including the GPS coordinates of each tree so they can study the potential impacts on the resulting whiskey.

    This, like WR's experiment with extra aged oak, is certainly interesting stuff.
    John B

    "Drinking when we are not thirsty and making love at all seasons… that is all there is to distinguish us from other animals."

  8. #8
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    Quote Originally Posted by Gillman View Post
    All very interesting. I wonder what the average age of an oak tree was used to make a whiskey barrel in the 1800's. Probably it varied since old trees die, new ones grow around. Plus the effect of fires, which might clear out an old-growth area and make it a new one. In writing this I do not even know really how old an oak tree can be (its "typical" age) before it expires.

    I still think it would be interesting to taste bourbon aged, say 6 years in all-40 year old wood, and one aged the same number of years, in the same part of the warehouse, from the same make, from 120 year old lumber.

    Gary
    I would also be interested in such a whiskey. Almost like the WR Seasoned Oak finish I would think.

    I would venture a guess and say that barrels made in the 1800's could have been 200 years or more old, but around that time in America large forested areas were being cleared for farmland, so who knows?

    According to the U.S. Forest Service, a white oak's typical lifespan is 300 years, with a max of 600 years.

    http://www.fs.fed.us/ne/delaware/atlas/lh802.htm

    While I was on the website for the American Stave Company, it states that they buy logs from 11 in. dia. on the small end to 30 in. on the large end. Seems to me trees 300-600 years old may end up being larger than that, and their equipment may not be able to handle logs that big.

    They also use the Doyle Log Rule for estimating board feet for potential stave logs. Why, I wonder? Doyle is not as accurate as the International 1/4" Rule. Again, who knows?

    I can't even begin to image what kind of affect 600 year old wood could have on whiskey! I'd sure like to try some though.

  9. #9
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    Quote Originally Posted by jburlowski View Post
    At the experimental whiskey tasting last Friday, Harlen Wheatley of BT said they are doing lots of experiments of the differences in aging of barrels made from trees with certain characteristics: e.g., age & ring growth, altitude, location (on the side of a hill, etc.) They apparently log all the specifics (including the GPS coordinates of each tree so they can study the potential impacts on the resulting whiskey.

    This, like WR's experiment with extra aged oak, is certainly interesting stuff.
    This is cool!

    I'm a natural resources major and forestry perks my interest.

    I'm sure the outcome will be interesting, but I fear its far too expensive to be anything other than experimental.

    Eric

  10. #10
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    Re: Whiskey barrel wood composition

    Quote Originally Posted by Gillman View Post
    All very interesting. I wonder what the average age of an oak tree was used to make a whiskey barrel in the 1800's. ..
    The oak today is different from oak of 1800's. When the white-eye arrived, the first thing they did was lumber the Great Oak-Chestnut forest and cut down huge old trees in a vast de-forestation program. Then, about 1910, the chestnut blight was introduced which upset the eco-balance between oak and chestnut and changed the character of the forest. Today, a smilar type of type of forest is called oak-hickory.

 

 

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