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...