Bourbon barrels in a rick house. (rotterdamblues / Flickr)
Bourbon barrels in a rick house. (rotterdamblues / Flickr)
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A boom in the bourbon industry is good news for Kentucky—the state produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon—but has spelled trouble for the struggling wood industry, which has had a difficult time providing enough oak for bourbon barrels, Roberto Ferdman reports for the Washington Post.

Making bourbon barrels at the Brown Forman cooperage. (Jessica Dillree / Flickr)
Making bourbon barrels at the Brown Forman cooperage. (Jessica Dillree / Flickr)

Bourbon sales increased more than 70 percent from 2009 to 2013, says the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, Ferdman writes. “And that’s actually a bit of a problem. Bourbon barrel production is a particular process, which requires the use of only higher quality wood. As it happens, that fancier wood isn’t as easy to come by.”

Jeff Stringer, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies hardwood silviculture and forestry, told Ferdman, “Very little of the wood out there is fit to be used for bourbon barrels. Only a small fraction of stave logs are high enough quality. That makes it really hard for the wood industry to adjust.”

Ferdman writes, “Stave logs are the oak planks that barrel-makers piece together and then hold in place with metal loops to make the bourbon barrels. Part of the reason it will be difficult to continue to supply enough stave logs to meet the demand of the bourbon industry is that chopping down trees is contingent on the ability to use all the wood—not just that which is fancy enough for bourbon barrels.”

An example of a rick house that holds 5,000 bourbon barrels. (wplynn / Flickr)
An example of a rick house that holds 5,000 bourbon barrels. (wplynn / Flickr)

To complicate matters, barrels used to make bourbon are only used once, Ferdman writes. “But this problem could also, eventually, prove to be a blessing for the industry down the road. Growing demand from a skyrocketing bourbon boom…means there will be an opportunity for loggers so long as they can supply the demand. White oak staves, in response to the rush to supply bourbon barrels, are selling for more than 20 percent above what they were at the start of the year.” Read more at the Washington Post.

[Editor’s Note: This article was cross-posted from the Rural Blog. Top image by rotterdamblues / Flickr.]

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Tim Mandell

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