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The future of Oak? 

I bought that shirt from the Van store last year!

Last weekend I read an article in the Scotsman relating to the Asian plant intruder Rhododendron and it got me thinking about oak.

When I worked as a Cocktail Bar Manager to pay my way through college, training as a Arborist, there was a mention of "sudden oak death" effecting trees in America.  A poorly chosen name, which plays on PR and the general love of oak. The organism that is to blame mainly effects other types of host tree/shrubs such as Rhododendron

Most whisky drinkers know that whiskies/whiskey's & bourbons are aged in oak, but don't general know to what extent. The legal requirement under The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 is that UK distilleries, those in Scotland, England and Wales have to age their spirit for a minimum of three years in oak before it can be classed as whisky.

 (c)  which has been wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres, the period of that maturation being not less than three years;
except from

The quote above applies to Scotch whisky in terms of the storage location and use of the name Scotch, but has the same restrictions minus location are applied to English and Welsh whiskies (such as Penderyn and St. George's Distillery).  

You might be asking yourself a pile of questions at this point. Such as;
  1. If whisky, cognac, rum & wine are so dependent on oak (it's Latin name, or genus being Quercus) why isn't it major news that something is attacking them?
  2. Are prices of my Glenmorangie original going to sky rocket as less wood becomes available? 
  3. What will Bruichladdich do instead of all those obscure finishes?
  4. Does Diageo have a secret Island with Dinosaurs and a theme park where they'll hide all the trees?&
  5. What about all the garden furniture and planters made of casks?
After this run you'd want a dram or two

Well, the truth is that "Sudden Oak Death" predominantly effects certain types of Oak, and those used in the drink industry are currently less susceptible.

The organism that is causing the problem is called Phytophthora ramorum and was first identified in California in 1995 and then later in Oregon, US.  It's mainly been found to cause a disease/death of Larch, Rhododendrons and Viburnums, which was first reported in Europe from the Netherlands and Germany in 2004.   

However, it is causing enough concern that in California, USA, between now and July 28th 2011, state workers will remove some 250 bay trees in San Mateo and Santa Clara County parks that could infect about 50 nearby trees with sudden oak death.

Peeling the bark like a large orangeLike plants there can be variations of the Genus. For example another form of Phytophthora, P.cinnamomi was discovered in 1922 in Sumatra and is now the cause of the decline of Cork Oak, and Holm Oak. 

Geek note: Phytophtora be airborne, but also travels in water like a sperm to an egg (known as zoospores). Once in water it's preference is to homes in on chemicals given off by root damage. After reaching the root tips it begins to constrict water supply weakening the tree, but generally not killing it. This allows disease to enter and that is what can kill the tree.

Cork Oak is used in the drinks industry for corks, and as part of it's decline we see screw caps being introduced by more and more wine producers. 

So could Phytophthora become the next Phylloxera epidemic or potato famine (was also caused by a type of Phytophtora) of the 21st Century? It is a possibility, if we see this fungus-like organism evolving/mutating to attack common oaks, such as the widely used Quercus alba; White oak used in Bourbon, sherry and the generally in the whisky industry. This makes me wonder if companies like Diageo, LVMH and Pernod Ricard have plans & research in place in there wood management policies.

With Phytophthora seeming to be native to Asia would Quercus mongolica (Mongolian Oak) used in the Japanese Industry be an alternative? Would it have the immunity, or act as an alternative root stock in the way that French grapes are grafted onto American root stock?

Eitherway this would have grave conciquenced on whisky industry as wood pricing would increase and smaller indie/artisan operations might have to approach the issue in innovative new ways. You never know small distilleries may end up owning/creating deciduous woodlands to manage the issue if it should ever arise. Diageo Pernod and LVMH might already have their secret Islands, but growing trees like whisky, takes time.


 I'm not a wood expert by any measure, but have some knowledge of the subject. See my references below for source info, etc...

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References (8)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Source
    Source: Exotic Pest Alert, Phytophthora ramorum (Sudden Oak Death)
  • Source
    Source: Phytophthora cinnamomi - How is it Affecting the Cork Industry?
    Certainly, if any single form of plant life has taken a beating over the years, trees have. Popular varieties seriously troubled by disease or insect include elm, pine, black locust, American chestnut, hemlock, and-let us include-oak-especially cork oak.
  • Source
    Source: Phytophthora ramorum
    Phytophthora ramorum (P. ramorum) is a fungus-like pathogen of plants that is causing extensive damage and mortality to trees and other plants in parts of the United Kingdom. It has also been found in a number of European countries, but mostly on plants and shrubs, especially rhododendron, viburnum and camellia, and has caused significant damage and mortality to many trees and other plants in parts of the USA. However, few trees in the UK were affected until 2009, when P. ramorum was found inf
  • Source
    Source: Sudden oak death under siege in San Mateo County
  • Source
    Source: Penderyn - The Wood
    The individual characteristics of a malt whisky are influenced by a number of different factors. These include the variety and quality of malted barley used, the water source, and the design and operation of the still. However, much of the flavour – and the final colour – depends on the type of wooden barrels used for maturation. The Penderyn house style derives uniquely from the use of two types of casks. For the initial maturation, we use the finest hand-selected bourbon barrels,
  • Source
    Source: End of the rhodi for £15m public enemy
    With attractive purple flowers, it may appear to simply add lush beauty to Scotland's west coast. However, one of the country's biggest landowners yesterday declared all-out war to wipe rhododendron from the map - because it kills everything in its path.
  • Source
    Seeds in infested soil showed lower velocity and germination rate; . The root condition of the young plant in infested soil was also clearly worst from the control plants; . This results make us believe that the young plants which have being created in nursery stocks where P. cinnamomi presence in the soil is not controlled, will present a minor capability when they are transplanted to the defi nitive local, because its radical system is not working as it should. Farmers must be carefful about
  • Related
    Related: The English Whisky Co.
    The English Whisky Co. is housed within St. George's distillery in the Breckland area of Norfolk, England. It is now established as England's first registered whisky distilling company in over 100 yrs.

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