As whiskey buyers become younger and more eco-conscious, drinks brands are faced with a problem: How can they convince these new consumers that their spirits are sustainable?
“It’s sad to see one of them felled,” says David Walsh-Kemmis, the 13th generation owner of the Ballykilcavan Estate in Ireland. Seven of his oak trees, originally planted by his ancestors over one hundred years ago, have been felled and sold to Irish Distillers, the Ireland-based whiskey arm of Pernod Ricard.
From Ireland, the oak trees are shipped to the Spanish region of Galicia and to the Maderbar Sawmills where they are cut into shape. They are then sent south to Jerez to be warmed in the Spanish sun and lightly toasted before being turned into whiskey casks, or “hogsheads.”
The hogsheads are then returned to Ireland where they are used to “finish” whiskies that Irish Distillers have been keeping in American bourbon casks for somewhere between 13 and 25 years.
This practice of turning oaks into casks has been going on for centuries. It is one of the most environmentally destructive parts of the drinks industry but essential for many premium spirits: Cognac, brandy, tequila, sherry, port, and rum are all aged in oak casks.
Even before cask making, or “cooping,” Ireland’s lumber was highly sought after. Walsh-Kemmis points out that the Vikings harvested Irish oaks to build their boats in the 11th century.
Since then, however, forests across Ireland have been stripped bare, leaving the country with a forest cover of just 1.5% at the turn of the 20th century. By comparison, roughly one third of all land in the U.S. is forested.
“When Ireland became an independent state there was a recognition of, ‘Guys there’s no timber,'” says Paddy Purser, forest manager and consultant to the Ballykilcavan Estate. Thanks to government initiatives Ireland’s forest cover is now around 11%, and slowly increasing.
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But, with Ballykilcavan House and the surrounding buildings all in poor repair, the old oaks had to be sold. “It paid for a good section of the house to be re-roofed,” says Walsh-Kemmis.
Though necessary, such practices do not sit well with the new generation of whiskey collectors.
Buyers are getting younger and younger, say retailers. At a recent Sotheby’s whiskey auction, 60% of buyers were under the age of 40, Jonny Fowle, senior spirits specialist at Sotheby’s recently told Forbes.
Many of them appreciate rare whiskey for its lucrative returns, if not just the spirit’s rich flavors. According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report, rare whiskey has seen returns of 468% over the last 10 years.
But these millennial buyers want, as with all their purchases, returns that are good for the environment as well as for themselves. Most luxury brands have already released sustainable product lines, but the drinks industry has been slow to catch up.
With COP26 on their doorstep last month, many Scottish distilleries sped up plans to go carbon neutral. Oban, Nc’nean, and Ardnamurchan distilleries are among them, using sustainable fuels to power vast mashing processes (where sugar and starch are extracted from the grain) and recycled materials for packing.
But carbon neutral distilleries still need those wooden casks that give whiskey so much of its depth and flavor. That means ancient oak trees still need to be felled.
Rather than mourn their loss, Irish Distillers want to celebrate these old oaks. It has just released the fourth installment of its Midleton Very Rare Dair Ghaelach collection to do exactly this.
Each of the seven single pot still whiskeys in the release can be traced back to one of the oak trees felled on the Ballykilcavan Estate. The 42 casks created from the seven oaks were recently bottled, with each bottle labeled 1 to 7 according to which oak tree gave its wood to the cask.
Remarkably, each of the seven whiskeys tastes distinctly individual, despite each oak tree coming from the same 400 acre forest. Tree five has “the highest intensity of flavor,” says Kevin O’Gorman, master distiller at Midleton Very Rare. Whether or not that is because the oak tree stood slightly higher up the hill than the others is anybody’s guess.
The bottles retail for €310 ($350) each, though O’Gorman says there can be big variations in price when collectors get hold of them. “Occasionally word gets around that one tree has less casks than the others and there’s a rush for that bottle,” he says, though declining to say whether or not the rumors are true.
To hedge your risks then, O’Gorman advises investors with a thirst for profit to buy all seven bottles. Complete collections fetch a better price when they come up at auctions.
In May last year, a 45-year-old bottle from the Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery sold for £35,000 ($46,690) setting a new record for Irish whiskey.
Among the collectors hoping the Midleton Very Rare Dair Ghaelach fourth edition will increase in price accordingly is Walsh-Kemmis himself: “I have brought a few bottles of tree numbers two and four.” But his real investment is in the next crop of oak trees that might be turned into whiskey casks, though, he admits, there is no guarantee of a return within his lifetime.
Walking through a wood of 20-year-old Sessile oaks, Purser and Walsh-Kemmis check up on this investment. “Every five years we come back to the woods and we visit the exact same trees and update our measurements. We don’t just measure the trees but the biodiversity as well,” says Purser.
“A very small percentage of these will be cooping grade,” he says, eyeing up one slender trunk towering above the others. “This will be a good cooping tree in 80 to 110 years’ time.”