With Garry Oak, we’re managing a resource that is, by its very nature, scarce—whether out in the world or in the aisles of our rackhouse. What we have to work with one year is altogether different the next. But this fluctuation in supply is what ultimately makes Garryana so challenging and thus so interesting. So we asked three different people who are intricately involved in developing our Native Oak program to share their experiences working with Garry Oak.
One consequence of our relentless pursuit of an entirely new style of whiskey is the speed at which time and milestones pass us by. Complacency is a sin which bears the punishment of irrelevancy. We must constantly keep marching forward, even while knowing full well that the destination is nowhere in sight. For it is the journey itself that we live for. However, we do believe there is incredible value in taking a pause for reflection that allows for an honest assessment of how we measure against our stated goals and how we might re-align towards the future, if necessary.
I didn’t have it all figured out when we sourced our first Garry Oak casks in 2011. And I still don’t. I believe mastery of an exploratory discipline is impossible. While this all started with a desire to utilize the only native oak from our region for maturation, it has turned into something far more than that. There was little data available at the time, no proof of concept, no known flavor profiles, and no understanding or recognition in the public consciousness. We went in totally blind and I can still remember tasting the first samples after several months of maturation. It was a showstopper.
But Garryana as a product represents more than just using a local ingredient in an attempt to replicate a whisky from Scotland. We are genuinely excited by it, thrilled by the opportunity to contribute something new and authentic to this centuries-old industry. Just as importantly, we relish the chance to start a new industry from scratch, in this case an economy around Garry Oak. To us, one of the most compelling parts of the whole endeavor is how we’ve integrated thinking from experiences in other aspects of our business—for example, in agriculture and sourcing barley—in order to set a new standard for how we interact with this raw material.
Over the past seven years we have attempted to push our relationship with this oak further at every opportunity, at first just by understanding the flavor profile. When it became apparent that there wasn’t an available supply of air-dried oak, we knew what must be done: we needed to start our relationship with Quercus garryana right at the very beginning, in a way that few distilleries ever have—with any oak. We have worked hard to not just find wood to work with, but also to meet like-minded people who are as passionate about their role in using this oak as we are. There have been more disappointments than success stories, but without trying there would be no success stories at all.
Westland was born with a Pacific Northwestern mentality that is rooted in a deep respect for the place we call home.
Along with sourcing wood to use for casks, we have also attempted to bring a holistic approach to the subject. Traditionally, making money selling a product and doing The Right Thing were seen as mutually exclusive endeavors. Westland was born with a Pacific Northwestern mentality that is rooted in a deep respect for the place we call home. We see our place in the industry as an opportunity to make a product that encapsulates not just our raw ingredients but also our regional values. As such, we have built the concept of stewardship into the foundational concept of the Garryana series.
To date, we have planted 625 oak saplings here in Washington State, out of a projected two thousand over the course of five years. The hope is for a success rate of one-in-ten—if one oak makes it to maturity for every ten we plant then we’ve done our job. However, the goal is to not just plant new saplings, but to seize the opportunity to learn more about Garry Oak by going out and getting our hands in the dirt. Among many other things, we’ve learned that the acorns dropped by these trees once attracted deer and elk, and that these oak savannas were cultivated by Native Americans to do so. It is a food ecosystem not unlike the dehesas of southern Spain, home to the famous Iberico pigs—and their even more famous hams. This is not something you learn by just calling a lumber mill to order oak.
This is what we have aimed to do with Garryana as a product—to make not only a delicious whiskey but also a compelling one. I believe strongly that whiskey should be holistic, and that environmentally and economically unsustainable practices are ultimately accounted for by taxpayer-funded restoration work and subsidies, respectively. So, what if we made a whiskey that attempted to do right by the environment (putting more oaks back into the ground and sourcing only salvaged timber) and by the people who supply it (paying a fair price for lumber that requires no subsidies). What if we made a whiskey that ultimately becomes more compelling and delicious because of those two efforts, not in spite of them? Because the more we learn about the environment the oak lives in, the more we can push quality and exploration further. And the more that our suppliers are incentivized financially to pursue this new economy, the more likely they are to be enthusiastic about innovating on their own.
It’s hard not to get excited about Garryana. As a distillery, we’ve stumbled upon this fantastic ingredient that is capable of creating unique and vibrant whiskeys. But managing our Garry Oak stocks to prepare for an increasing demand requires immense foresight and restraint. With a limited number of barrels available to us each year, and the uncertainty of a continued supply of wood in the future, we need to be mindful and calculating in how we use and release Garryana-aged whiskies.
Within the course of a year, we had created a shortage of aging stock within our own distillery.
When we first started releasing Garry Oak matured whiskey in 2016, we were frankly too excited to share our discovery, and too enthusiastic about selling away our stocks. We released Garryana 1|1—a large release of 2,500 bottles—as well as three single casks and a distillery-exclusive hand-fill. In doing so, we became a lesson in how too much enthusiasm can be a bad thing. Within the course of a year, we had created a shortage of aging stock within our own distillery.
Our vision for the long-term management of our Garry Oak stock was clouded by our desire to share our discovery with the world. Because of the chaotic and uncertain nature by which we procure Garry Oak barrels, we were left with aging stock too young to produce a quality, full-term matured Garryana whiskey in 2018.
This left us with only one option from an operations viewpoint: explore Garryana’s utility as a finishing agent. Using previously initiated trials involving Garry Oak casks, as well as our five-malt and peated spirit, our Blender Shane Armstrong was able to create this year’s bottling—an incredibly integrated, dynamic spirit that truly shows the strength of Garry Oak. Even though none of the spirit within Garryana 3|1 spent the entirety of its maturation in Garry Oak casks, more spirit spent at least some time in Garry Oak than any of our other releases in the series.
As we continue to work with Garry Oak, and as we continue to release Garryana on a yearly basis, it’s going to become more and more important that I work closely with Shane in order to make sure I can supply and fill Garry Oak barrels at a rate that not only allows our Garryana program to grow in size but also in diversity.
As the program matures, we will transition from producing barrels from air-dried boards simply found in farms and mills around the Pacific Northwest to producing barrels from boards that we have had a hand in from log to stave. This means that a lot more care must be taken to inventory the lumber as it air-dries for three years. To do this, we must communicate the strict standards that need to be followed during the preparation and manufacturing of the staves and barrels. This will be a huge undertaking, but it’ll be one filled with opportunity. Who knows what the future will hold as we learn more about how to manage the entire process in an efficient manner. As we move from intent novices to experts in understanding what it takes to turn a fallen Garry Oak log into a fantastic spirit, we will be able to take advantage of those opportunities to explore the regionality and micro-terroir of the Pacific Northwest even more fully.
To define a whiskey in a singular moment is foolish. Context is a powerful force. Garryana is an expression of place and a dissection of definition. Both of these concepts remain in perpetual formation, expressed in individual casks and vattings. Our first snapshot of Garry Oak was in four single cask releases. Perhaps exempting the prescience, these casks displayed a mélange we may simply call “the spice.” More clove than cinnamon. Arrakis approximations aside, their uniqueness and power led to Garryana 1|1.
The first release was constructed with grandness at the fore; a burly profile constructed with peated and 5-malt spirit aged in new oak to match and bolster the Garry Oak-aged portion. It was a lesson in clarity that defined the initial release; Garry Oak can stand tall in an assertive arena.
The eruptive inauguration settled into a gentler distribution marked by nuance in the second year. Garryana 2|1 was a counterpoint. For all its bombast, spirit from Garry Oak casks can be tempered to delicacy. This assembly had no peated spirit and less new oak aging. It was instead ferried by Washington Pale Malt in first-fill Bourbon. The arc from 1|1 to 2|1 was a dramatic reversal of circumstances.
Somewhere along that curve lands the experience of Garryana 3|1. The third incarnation is both an annulation and a midpoint between the previous two expressions. Four anachronistic casks first vatted in 2016 followed a path in and out of Garry Oak. A strange hybrid of delicacy and assertiveness emerged after finding three complementary casks to complete Garryana 3|1. Defined by intermittent marrying, this version further explores featuring Garry Oak as a component.
Distinctive attributes oscillate between domination and flourish. There is a challenge to creating a balanced whiskey defined by featured elements. Garry Oak single casks are not balanced—the spice is strong enough for clairvoyance, but they lack sweetness. Version 1|1 achieved balance through matching distinct notes (clove, smoke, blackberry) present in sweeter non-Garry Oak casks. Similarly, a future release could see Garry Oak spirit paired with sweet wine casks to achieve symmetry. Garryana 2|1 found its feature function more tangential. The notes of Garry Oak awash, not assertive. Iteration 3|1 contains less overall Garry Oak but has seen the unique wood for a longer period of time. Time versus volume promises to be an irresistible realm for future explorations and discussion of time comes inextricably linked to the concept of space.
Whiskey profiles can be approached in spatial terms. Garryana 1|1 represented an intense burst, like a guild navigator cloudy with spice gas leaping heighliners through space. The experience was a compact spike and decline. Garryana 2|1 did not fold space, but stretched across the expanse. The profile was akin to an ambient wash that created multiple points of reflection—stretched enough to see all the dips and rises. Garryana 3|1 behaves like a resonating version of our first bottling in 2016. It covers more ground with a less extreme spike, like collecting mélange off the sand’s surface.
The path to defining Garryana is perpetual.
Expertise is often conferred on those with assured words. In whiskey-making, unique elements of production can project a halo of understanding—cause and effect lines drawn with astonishing confidence. Rather than a dictation, our Native Oak Series is meant to leave space for what can be. The path to defining Garryana is perpetual.
NOSE: Notes of buckwheat honey, vanilla cream and milk chocolate with hints of subtle wood smoke, raspberry reduction and nutmeg.
PALATE: Slightly savory rye bread, clove and floral notes balance the dry character of Garry Oak flavor.
Release Number: 0111
Release Date: September 2018
Total Bottled: 1638
Minimum Maturation Time: 51 Months
Washington Select Pale Malt
Heavily Peated Malt
New American Oak
1st Fill Ex-Bourbon
1st Fill Ex-Port
Belgian Brewer’s Yeast