There’s a much cooler way to keep up with the Joneses than buying the latest car or mobile phone and now is the perfect time of year to act if you want to grow your own forest. I admit that I may be stretching the truth a little. A forest is defined as a large area of land that’s covered in trees. I like to think “large” is subjective and would argue that the two baby oak trees in my garden qualify as a forest. They’re still in pots for now but I plan to plant more this year and eventually move them to a proper field where (hopefully) they will prosper.
Getting in on the action is easy. Oak trees grow from small acorns - these happen to be dropping all over the place at the moment in Scotland. The timing will vary a little in the Northern Hemisphere depending on where you live exactly, but, if oak trees grow in your part of the world, all you need to do is to stroll through a forest when the leaves start to fall in autumn and collect a few acorns off the ground.
I do enjoy gardening but the main reason I was keen to own an oak forest (😉) is because Scotch whisky is matured in oak casks. Some would argue that most of the flavours in a whisky come from the oak. Many books go further and quote that 70% of a whisky’s character is developed during maturation. I often wonder where this “fact” came from. I assume a distiller once used this rough percentage to describe a specific whisky and this figure was taken as a general rule.
I agree most whisky flavours derive from the maturation process but consider a 3-year-old peaty whisky matured in re-fill bourbon casks and a 30-year-old Speyside malt matured in first-fill sherry casks: the latter will be far more influenced by maturation than the former. Nevertheless and regardless of percentages, when it comes to flavour, oak matters - at least as much as whether a whisky is made from peated malted barley (or not) and how a whisky is distilled.
The main types of oak used for Scotch whisky maturation are American and European (mostly Spanish). Just looking at freshly cut staves points to a breadth of flavours to be extracted by the spirit over the years. American oak is quite light in colour whilst Spanish oak has redder hues. American oak tends to pass on honey, toffee, and vanilla flavours, whilst Spanish oak infuses notes of dried fruit and nuttiness.
Maturation is not just about wood extracts. Some casks contain an active layer of char. This layer will help remove immature notes which are sometimes present in new-make (freshly distilled) spirits. Moreover, casks let the liquor breathe which means oxidation and evaporation also play a part in determining the final character of your favourite whisky.
Producing whisky can be a sobering patience game, and not only due to the maturation period. Trees need at least 50 years to fully develop (sometimes 100 years, depending on species, location, etc). It then takes a couple of years to air-dry staves before they can be turned into casks. Those casks are used to mature their first spirit or wine for a few years before they make their way to Scotland.
I wish the trees I planted last year could be used to mature whisky during my lifetime. The reality is that oak tree producers are currently planting trees for future generations, far ahead. You can play your part in this, too. Just remember to collect a few acorns next time you go for a walk. Before long, you’ll be telling your friends about this oak forest you own…
Here are a few links to help you get going. Remember, oak trees grow to be very tall so make sure you have selected a suitable space to plant yours once it is mature enough to be moved to a permanent position!