So what then have we learned about Garry oak so far? While each is a little different from the next, our five single cask releases of Garry oak whiskey this year have revealed some core themes. The whiskies are dark. Imagine the characteristic flavor profile of Quercus alba, seen through a fog of smoke. We get molasses instead of caramel, heavy clove in place of generic baking spices, and in the place of coconut and vanilla, we have smoke, coffee grounds and a meaty savoriness. But these casks, to whatever degree this is possible, were nearly identical. Each had the same period of air seasoning, the same toast level, the same maturation strength. What will the whiskies look like with less air seasoning? Or more? Perhaps much more? Are there flavors in Garry oak that we have yet to experience? And what of its effects on the integration of the spirit itself, in addition to the extracted flavor? Trent Thomas, who along with his father-in-law Todd Dollinger operate reWine Barrels in Salem, OR, has more experience with the species than perhaps anyone. “After years of working as a cooper I’ve become well-versed in the various oak species found across the globe,” he says. “I’ve seen wines from delicate pinot noirs to even massive Washington reds be easily bullied by the brooding and hedonistic flavors of Garry oak while the tannic structure takes years to mellow and temper. None of species we see employed much more widely can impart flavors as bold and complex as our local oak. Not Eastern U.S, French, Hungarian or even the Acacia.”
One of the most interesting things about working with Garry oak and visiting the good folks at reWine was learning more about the world it comes from. The first reality that was plainly apparent as we traveled the Willamette Valley is that Garry oak is not a particularly popular wood to employ, whether in the whiskey industry or outside of it. We didn’t have to look too far to find weathered piles of it left unwanted. A betting man would guess that perhaps too much was harvested before an industry crash, but we learned that Garry oak has always been rarely farmed and most of the wood that does find its way to mills is blow-down or simply old. Seeing hundreds of board-feet of beautifully aged wood, from one years old to seven, with everything in between, was frankly shocking; like we’d won the oak lottery. And like the wood that lines the walls in our tasting room in Seattle, this oak was salvaged—unwanted by others who could not see its potential.