One can’t help but smile at the beauty of the work we have the fortune to pursue.
We thundered down Interstate 5 in a torrent of rain, something none of you will find surprising. We were up early and we were alert, thanks to a few gallons of coffee, a stiff mid-winter wind and the excitement of the chase. If I’m being honest, we were feeling part excitement and part nervous anticipation. We had a lot riding on this trip to Southern Oregon. Untold potential waited ahead—or perhaps more accurately, unseen potential.
Whiskey teaches you many things, not the least of which is perspective. I’ve become practiced at mentally removing myself from the moment. Never entirely, but in small bits. I’m still easily caught up in the doing of things, but I’ve also learned how important it is to be continually aware of the bigger picture. We’ve long seen new possibilities in single malt whiskey and with each step forward we recognize how our work impacts our place in the industry. We don’t take this lightly. And so, we make a study of understanding both the business and the craft of whiskey. Without attention to both you can’t succeed at either. When we pause to step outside the moment, the picture can develop. What comes into focus is everything that has come and gone, and that which has yet to come. The pattern and machinations of our actions appear fluid, almost predictable. One can’t help but smile at the beauty of the work we have the fortune to pursue, of the influences from the past balanced against the thrilling path we see in the future.
On this day, we were hunting for Garry Oak (Quercus garryana), the native oak species that only grows here in the Pacific Northwest. While we’ve been filling casks made from this remarkable wood for several years, and making unique and delicious whiskies with it, we’ve always acknowledged how lucky we’ve been thus far. Just last year we found a cache of cut lumber that gave us enough raw material for the 25 casks we made and filled during the summer. Some of that lumber air-dried for three years. Some for five years. And some even, for seven years. This was the proverbial goldmine. Thousands of board feet of perfectly-seasoned Garry Oak, ready to go. But we’re not ones to rely on luck time and time again. And our ambitions are growing.
Garry oak now grows only in roughly five percent of its former habitat.
Based on the results of our early work with Garry Oak, we’re investing more and more into the Native Oak Series. But now we are confronted with the reality of the present. Because this oak is so rare and so difficult to find, no system has been built for it. With our plans expanding to 500 casks over the next five years, we now need a minimum of 50,000 board feet of Garry Oak. So, we must architect the system and create the economy. This begins by developing relationships close to the source so we can be alerted to any raw oak that becomes available. Looking out the window of the truck, we knew those sources were out there ahead of us, if we looked hard enough.
Garry Oak has long been an afterthought in this region. Today, it is still largely seen as scrap by most, used for firewood if anything at all. It’s used only sparingly for industry—flooring, furniture and, of course, whiskey—though it is seeing a small resurgence. In the face of that renewed interest however is a stark reality. Garry Oak now grows only in roughly five percent of its former habitat. Being found in some of the most coveted grazing areas when early pioneers first moved into the region, it came down quickly to make way for homesteads and settlements. Only recently have preservation efforts been undertaken to maintain and restore these special habitats that had once been looked after by Native Americans for millennia. Many local and regional authorities have now put restrictions into place for bringing down Garry Oak. Unfortunately, during the era when these oak savannas were neglected, a large lumber industry focused on planting and harvesting coniferous trees was established. What we’re left with now is a once-revered species of oak that has been marginalized by the advance of society. As a result, usable Garry Oak, blown down in storms or secured from one of the few remaining pockets of legal urban salvage, is now extremely rare.
We can see the future where, ten years from now, we may have released a whiskey matured in some of the oak from Samuel and Norman’s farm.
It’s no surprise then that a substantial cooperage economy has yet to take root in this region. When we source Quercus alba, commonly known as American White Oak, we work within a large coopering system that allows us to source what we want, when we want it, with a simple phone call or click of the mouse. We have demanding specifications relative to the rest of the whiskey industry, particularly in our search for air-dried oak. But even those self-imposed restrictions don’t cause a great challenge when dealing with Quercus alba. For the coopers who supply us with those casks—who do a fantastic job by the way—the stock of raw oak is widely available. With Garry Oak, however, when we want 100 casks, made from three-year air-dried wood, our fortunes are left only to chance and timing.
Reminded of all of these factors, we realized the enormity of the task. It was apparent that we needed to secure wood now; not just for this year’s demand, but for years to come. That meant finding 50,000 board feet. Rather than breaking our spirit though, we found resolve. We pulled off I-5 near Halsey, Oregon where we’d learned of a small family farm that might prove fruitful. This was no hipster farm; this is real, rural America, a picture that could have been taken in any one of a thousand places in the US, save for the oaks. We meet Samuel Kropf and his son Norman, who cut oak from their property on a small Lucas mill with a circular saw. Though we would only source 1,000 board feet on this day, we developed a relationship that promised a steady, albeit relatively small, supply for years to come. No matter how much you know or care about whiskey, coopering, or even oak itself, there was bigger idea taking shape starting with that first visit. There is great, and often unappreciated value to be found in what literally lies all around us. To find new uses for this wood and to provide a new source of revenue to the salt-of-the-earth farming families of the region is a remarkable sea change for what is a growing community of like-minded people we’re bringing together.
I often see a lot of corollaries between the world of whiskey-making and the world of food. One of the problems with our modern agricultural system is that people don’t tend to have much of a connection to where the food they eat comes from. They can’t see the nuances of what went into raising these particular vegetables or what was fed to the chicken they’re going to roast for dinner. But when people make it out to a farm and see everything the farmer must do to get those vegetables through the season or that chicken to a full size, they tend to appreciate the food they’re eating more than they would otherwise. So it is with oak. Once we saw the lumberyard at Goby and listened to them talk about their work, we really began to get a sense of what it takes to deliver the final lumber we’ll use for casks and the pride they take in their workmanship. We learned how challenging it is to source the raw oak, discussing the nuances of tree selection and exactly how it should be brought down. We listened to them wax poetic about the ways oak can be cut to varying thicknesses, say 4/4” or 5/4”, depending upon the intended use. We heard about exactly what would happen to the oak if it is cut one way or the other. Listening to all of this was fascinating and immensely valuable to us as we consider how to work with the oak downstream. But perhaps the most interesting moment of the day didn’t even concern oak at all, at least not yet.
There were walnut slabs there at the mill, ranging in size from simply large to incredibly massive. However, the thing that caught my eye was not the size of the slabs but the color. Ranging from caramel brown to shades of red, black, even purple and blue, the color of the wood reflected the growing conditions and the soil makeup from where the tree grew. As I was talking to the folks at Goby about this, we all realized the potential of what we had seen: if the different soil conditions could produce different colors in the tree, certainly it could be doing different things to flavor compounds and their precursors in the wood.
The ramifications weren’t lost on any of us. Within minutes, we all got it. This is what we were there to do—establish a system for sourcing, milling and coopering, and forming real relationships with real people. By building this economy from the ground up, we now not only have a more steady supply of oak, but we are able to control exactly how it is handled throughout the process.
We left Goby’s mill in Portland to hunt down a few more leads. As we did, it felt as if everything fit so precisely in a nexus of time. Our continued work to create whiskies that are real, that have a sense of time and place, to find the truth in our world and explore, it stirred a sense of purpose within all of us. The broader perspective was coming back into focus. The cycle is always self-reinforcing. We look “west”, seeing the possibilities therein, then we push forward to make it so. We do this out of necessity and we know others will follow. Yet the heavy lifting and the difficulty that comes with carving the path also means we get to determine where it leads.
This has always been the heart of our philosophy at Westland, ingrained in our very nature. We’re compelled to look out so we might see possibilities others don’t recognize. But seeing opportunity is not enough. You have to have the wherewithal to do something about it. During the trip, we explored one of the few remaining natural Garry Oak savannas in the Pacific Northwest. It was coated with lush mosses draping the otherwise bare limbs in the middle of winter. The oaks provided a juxtaposition of a life frozen in time and a world moving steadily forward. Again, we removed ourselves from the moment, wondering in amazement at our place in the world of whiskey, exploring physically at the edge of the earth and figuratively at the cutting edge of single malt philosophy. We, like our whiskies, are products of our time and place. While we look forward to the future we’re building with our new partners in this industry we cannot deny that what we live for now in the present is the exploration, the journey. This latest edition is another step forward along a path that winds all across the Pacific Northwest in search of insight. We hope you enjoy the results as much as we do.
NOSE: Clove, nutmeg and honeycomb start on the nose followed by darker notes of mocha and wood smoke before opening up to candied ginger and dried tropical fruits.
PALATE: Garry Oak’s signature flavors of molasses and BBQ smoke lead with notes of mouth-coating espresso, blueberry ice cream and subtle citrus joining.
Release Number: 0087
Release Date: June 2017
Total Bottled: 2500
Minimum Maturation Time: 38 Months
Washington Select Pale Malt
Extra Special Malt
Pale Chocolate Malt
1st Fill Ex-Bourbon Quercus alba (52%)
Virgin Quercus alba (27%)
Virgin Quercus garryana (21%)
Belgian Saison Brewer’s Yeast
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