By Richard Thomas
When it comes to whiskey and wood, the world has three basic models. The American model relies heavily, although not exclusively, on new oak. The Irish and Scottish model relies heavily, although not exclusively, on used barrels. Finally, the Canadians are a heterodox lot who use both new and used barrels.
Yet it’s the Irish and Scottish model that has become the most widely copied of the three. From Argentina to Japan, whenever a new country joins the world whiskey trade, they almost always follow in the footsteps of Scotch whisky. With Irish and Scottish style maturation playing such an overwhelming role around the world, it begs the question of just why that model relies so heavily on used casks.
The Age Of Sail Timber Shortage
The answer dates back to before even the nascent days of the modern whiskey industry, when the British and French fought what is sometimes called the Second Hundred Years War (1689-1815) for global supremacy. This series of conflicts defined the swashbuckling Age of Sail that makes up the fiction of Forester and O’Brian, and it was ravenous for timber.
The biggest battleships of this era were triple decked monsters mounting over 100 cannon, such as the famed HMS Victory that served as Horatio Nelson’s flagship and is a museum today. In terms of just oak, the main wood for making casks, such a vessel consumed over 100 acres of forest, or approximately 6,000 mature oak trees. During the Napoleonic Wars alone, the Royal Navy maintained a fleet of around 100 two- and three-decked battleships, plus hundreds of smaller vessels and a huge merchant fleet.
A crucial difference between Britain and France during this period was that the French had instituted a comprehensive forest conservation scheme early on, while the British did not. In the 1670s, French Minister of Finance Jean Baptiste Colbert seized or created a series of forests with the intent of securing the oak supply for the French Navy. The British Parliament, on the other hand, was very finicky about trifling with the rights of property owners (not so common laborers, who were impressed as sailors), and Great Britain soon found itself largely deforested and importing most of its timber from America, Russia and Scandinavia.
No Oak For Barrels
An oak tree requires several decades to reach maturity for timber purposes, so these 18th Century events severely impacted how the Irish and Scottish whiskey industries evolved far into the 19th Century. The French wine industry, for example, found a ready supply of new oak for its casks in Colbert’s forests of Chaux and Troncais. America, a major exporter of oak to Britain, had plenty of timber for making new barrels.
Scotland and Ireland, on the other hand, had long since been deforested, conditions that continue into the present. Today, Ireland is the second most deforested country in Europe. As a result, they had to rely on recycling old barrels, at that time leftovers from the imports of various French, Spanish and Portuguese wines. With the rise of steamships and cheaper Transatlantic shipping, the Irish and Scottish whiskey industries began importing used American barrels as well, leading to the modern prevalence of American Standard Barrels (ASBs).
The early distillers of Scotland and Ireland began maturing their whiskeys in used barrels for the simplest and most classic of reasons: necessity. New oak was expensive, so the future British standard of “make due and mend” was already the order of the day when it came to coopering.
It’s something one can see even today when comparing American cooperages to their counterparts in Ireland and Scotland. An American cooperage is recognizable as an assembly line factory, turning out identical ASBs in their hundreds or thousands. A Scottish or Irish cooperage, on the other hand, is in line with a artisanal workshop, more about repairing and rebuilding a variety of casks than fashioning new and uniform ones. Some of those cooperages have roots dating back to the 19th Century, if not before, and very little has changed over time.