N O G ORE OAK
n the North American spirits industry, American White Oak (Quercus alba) is king. Barrels made from American Oak hold Kentucky’s entire bourbon inventory, the vast majority of Canadian whisky, and virtually all of Mexico’s maturing reposado and añejo tequilas— not to mention the lion’s share of maturing Scotch whisky on the other side of the Atlantic. But an intrepid group of Northwest craft distillers is questioning American Oak’s hegemony by turning to a tree that grows a bit closer to home. Oregon Oak (Quercus garryana) is a completely different oak species than American White Oak. For many years, it was used for little more than firewood, but today, it’s offering distillers a distinct set of new flavors—the artist’s equivalent of a brand-new paint color. For distillers located in Oregon Oak’s territory, it also offers a tantalizing chance to express an untapped source of terroir, the beverage maker’s Holy Grail.
IN THE COOPERAGE Oregon Oak’s history as a cooperage material likely begins centuries ago, when European settlers first arrived in the Oregon Territory. Back then, barrels weren’t just used for beverages; all sorts of things were shipped in barrels, from cooking oil and sardines to ball bearings. But Prohibition undermined the nation’s regional cooperages, and many—including those in the Northwest—never recovered. But in the 1990s, Rick DeFerrari, a winemaker with a forestry degree, decided it was time to bring coopering back to the valley. After apprenticing with a French cooperage for 18 months, he opened Oregon Barrel Works in McMinnville in 1996, and released WWW.ART ISANSP IRITMAG.COM
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his first Oregon Oak casks in the late 1990s. Initially, he targeted winemakers. Oregon pinot noir was beating French Burgundies at competition—if Oregon grapes were just as good as the ones in France, mightn’t Oregon Oak be, as well? But it turned out that Oregon Oak’s flavor was quite assertive, and the winemakers that did use it didn’t need many barrels to add its distinctive, spicy edge to their wine. “Although the Oregon barrels tend to be a little rustic, they add complexity in small doses,” Brian O’Donnell, winegrower and winery owner at Belle Pente Winery & Vineyard, told Touring and Tasting magazine in 2013. But there was another early adopter: Steve McCarthy at Clear Creek Distillery in Portland. “Steve was one of our very first customers, and he was the first guy to start playing around with this stuff in distilling,” says DeFerrari. Clear Creek started using