Scotch: Taking local oak seriously

“The flavours from the Scottish oak cask finish were outstanding and I would not hesitate to incorporate them into a project in the future. I am also very excited to see the results from the second fill of the casks, which is work in progress at the moment.” 

Another brand experimenting with Scottish oak is The Glenallachie, which recently launched its 15-year-old Scottish Virgin Oak Finish as part of its Virgin Oak Series. The single malt was aged in ex-bourbon barrels and then finished for 18 months in Quercus petrae sourced from the Atlantic coast of Scotland. The wood was also air dried for 36 months before being toasted and charred. 

Master distiller Billy Walker says: “I’m particularly proud to release a very rare Scottish Virgin Oak bottling; a long-held ambition of mine, with full appreciation of how challenging and expensive it is to work with. The result, in my humble opinion, is genuinely outstanding.”

In theory the more popular something becomes the more humans produce or farm it. For example, there has never been more American oak in the US than there is today, which is a direct result of the increasing demand for bourbon, and therefore new American oak barrels. However, right now the brands using Scottish oak are being careful about how they’re sourcing the rare wood. 

“To ensure we are sourcing oak responsibly, we have recently joined a charity which works to restore and expand the native Caledonian Forest and conserve wildlife habitats through a tree replanting programme,” declares The Whisky Works on its website. And Glass was adamant he did not advocate the felling of ancient Scottish oak trees, rather using wind-felled trees and planting several new ones to help boost its population. 


Even with the emergence of regeneration programmes and Scotch whisky teasing its interest, it seems unlikely Scotland will ever return to the forest-filled landscape of old, but the Romans’ legendary description of the landscape could be more legend than reality. 

“I don’t think of the Great Wood of Caledon as a thing of nature at all. I think it was built by the Romans, or at least, its reputation was,” says Scottish natural history writer Jim Crumley in a National Geographic report by Simon Ingram. 

Crumley’s theory suggests that the Great Wood was exaggerated by the Romans in order to explain to their superiors why they failed to conquer the Barbarian lands known today as Scotland. In other words, they needed an excuse for their failures when they returned to face those in charge, blaming a much-exaggerated terrain. This means the regeneration projects for native oak may not be as severe as first thought. 

Unlike Roman mythology, the few brands currently experimenting with Scottish oak have proven its capability to create accomplished whisky. 

But in order to become a more regular fixture in ageing warehouses, there needs to be a change in mentality by the industry from looking far and wide for new exotic casks, to harnessing the wealth of quality oak already in Scotland.