Watering the Whiskey Tree
Two Sewanee grads from families steeped in American distillery history find their way, separately, to a conservation effort aimed at protecting the trees needed for the production of some storied spirits.
By Charles Nelson IV, C'08
To the perceptive palate, whiskey has innumerable permutations. Recipes, aging, proof—distillers use these and other variables to craft deeper bouquets, sweeter tastes, more subtle burns, and a multitude of ends. But, for the bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys of the world, there’s one constant in the equation: the new charred-oak barrel.
That barrel is nothing less than a chrysalis. The burnt wood encasing the spiny young spirit tempers it. Toasted wood sugars impart golden and umber colors and help create the whiskey’s vanilla and brown-sugar flavors and aromatics.
But there’s a challenge in that constant. Creating a new barrel means harvesting an oak tree. After harvesting a white oak, you’ll plant another, and with a dose of luck, a barrel-grade tree may mature after 60 to 80 years, from which you may get three barrels.
Factor in the demand for oak in other markets, and the math might give pause to the discerning whiskey-sipper.
White oak forests may face threats in the future, but McCauley Williams Adams, C’04, and Alex Richman, C’05, are the kinds of long-term thinkers you want addressing those threats. Richman and Adams are contributors to the work of the White Oak Initiative, an organization devoted to maintaining the historic range of these trees in the eastern United States. And while it’s clear the two women have oak in common, there are other kinds of trees—the branching decision trees that led them to Sewanee and beyond, not to mention their uncannily similar family trees and histories—that make their work with the initiative seem predetermined and poured in a sort of kismet cocktail, built from perfect measures of whiskey, oak trees, likelihood, and a healthy dash of coincidence.
Alex Richman lists everyday items made from Quercus alba. You’re inevitably surrounded by them—think furniture, flooring, veneer.
But it’s also hidden in plain sight. She remembers a talk given by the head of the University of Kentucky’s forestry department: “Jeff Stringer says the country runs on white oak. You can find it in the beds of railroad cars, the bottoms of semi-truck trailers, shipping pallets.”
Richman lives in Moore County, Tennessee, and to the whiskey historian, her full name, Mary Alexandra Motlow Richman, might ring a bell.
It was Richman’s maternal ancestors, the Motlows, who sold the family distillery bequeathed to them by their father, Lem Motlow, who inherited the distillery from his uncle, Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel.
Richman’s connection to the whiskey of her great-great-great uncle is distant, but not unbroken. She manages the family forest, and explains that white oak from her family’s land inevitably becomes barrels for the nearby distillery. But her calling is broader than timber and barrels.
“My life’s work is to help forest landowners to stay on their land and keep it in their family,” she says. “That’s my entire reason for living.”
Despite growing up close by, Richman had few Sewanee connections. When she enrolled at the University, she wasn’t certain she had made the right choice, but classes with professors like Karen Kuers and Bran Potter validated her decision.
“The Domain was important to me,” she says. “How do you manage big pieces of land like that? I wanted to be there and learn by osmosis.”
At Sewanee, a lot seeped in.
“Just seeing that people had careers in rocks and trees was very inspiring,” Richman says. “I didn’t know those jobs existed.”
It was in Professor Ken Smith’s Environmental Policy class that Richman learned about the Farm Bill and other wonky silviculture policy. She wanted to immerse herself in what she calls “the alphabet soup” of agencies and jargon.
So after graduation she moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the Nature Conservancy, eventually finding her way to the American Forest Foundation, an organization that works to advocate for family forest owners.
Eventually, home, graduate school, and other inclinations called. “I wanted to grow trees, and build a strong, community-oriented, and sustainable agricultural system. I thought I could be of more help to the land and the people working the land in Tennessee rather than in D.C.”
Richman moved to her aunt’s sheep farm in Sewanee and applied to the University of Tennessee’s graduate program in forestry. Her experience in the field accumulated, and in 2014, she became the chief operating officer of Cumberland Springs Land Company, the fourth generation of Motlows to manage 6,000 acres of family land.
These days, demand for white oak is strong, having rebounded after the housing crisis of 2008. Richman’s land once held an ample stock of oak, and right now, she’s focused on the next generation of white oak trees.
But managing for oak takes effort.
“For most upland sites, white oak just can’t really compete with red maple, yellow poplar, sweetgum, and other shade-intolerant species,” she says.
According to Richman, land use has changed to white oak’s detriment. Historically, landowners grazed livestock in the woods, and burned their woods and yards to keep ticks away. These disturbances removed competition in the understory and allowed white oak to flourish.
Without appropriate space and light conditions, faster-growing species in the understory can suppress oak trees to the point that two oaks planted at the same time may, years later, differ in height and trunk diameter by several times. Sapling-sized oaks may actually be 30 or more years old.
Controlled burns would help the oak on her property, but with a major state highway, subdivisions and schools, and a TVA transmission line, as well as neighbors who have recently built ridgetop homes, there are plenty of people who aren’t keen on such practices. Without traditional solutions, the oak trees stay small and eventually get removed. Though strong today, the white oak market is primed to face supply pressures.
A few years ago, Richman’s former employers at the American Forest Foundation informed her of a partnership being formed to focus on privately owned hardwood forests, centering on the uncertainties that threaten stocks of white oak. It was the sort of initiative that fit right into Richman’s philosophy.
What she didn’t know then was that another Sewanee graduate of a similarly recognized lineage had oak on the mind as well.
“All my life, I've been taught to leave the world better than I found it,” says McCauley Adams. Seated in the bar of the 21C Hotel Louisville, she goes on to explain her connection to the Old Forester old fashioned that she sips.
In 1870, George Garvin Brown, Adams’s great-great grandfather, broadened the use of a simple invention—namely, the glass bottle.
“Rot-gut” whiskey, liquor cut with unsanitary and poisonous additives, had become ubiquitous. Brown started selling his Old Forester bourbon exclusively in sealed glass bottles as a safety guarantee, and today, that simple decision makes Brown an icon of the industry. Brown-Forman Corporation, the company bearing his name, now crafts some quintessential whiskey, including Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and even Jack Daniel’s, which Brown-Forman bought from the Motlows in 1956.
But, while many of Adams’s extended family worked there—her grandfather, uncles, some cousins—it was never a foregone conclusion that she would too. After graduating from Sewanee, she lived in Costa Rica, where she worked for a beverage distributor. It was her experience there that cemented her interest in the industry, after which she worked in San Antonio with other distributors, using her Spanish fluency to craft marketing specifically targeted to Latino customers. Often, she was branding for labels competitive with those of Brown-Forman.
In 2008, she began an M.B.A. program at the University of Georgia, which she completed while working full-time as a market brand manager for Jack Daniel’s. Soon after finishing, she moved back to Louisville, where she’s worked in several positions at Brown-Forman.
Ask her about whiskey trends, and you can tell Adams is well-suited to her present job as manager of communications and brand history. “We’ve seen whiskey start to boom again with these craft-cocktail, prohibition, speakeasy-style bars,” she explains. “That’s definitely en vogue.”
En vogue might be an understatement. The Distilled Spirits Council reports American whiskey is now a $3.4 billion industry after revenues climbed 8.1 percent last year.
But growth necessitates growth. Adams puts it simply: “If we’re going to be making more bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, we’re going to need more white oak.”
The cachet of the names “bourbon”and “Tennessee whiskey” is that the categories’ standards are relatively strict. Under the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, no whiskey aged in recycled barrels can be called Tennessee whiskey or bourbon (Tennessee whiskey has the added state law requiring it to be aged in-state and mellowed with sugar maple charcoal).
The new-barrel requirement may be the toughest part of the code. Recycled barrels are readily available; new barrels can be cost-prohibitive. Adams explains that smaller distilleries have unsuccessfully sued to use “bourbon” and “Tennessee whiskey” on their labels despite not quite meeting the standard, knowing well the premium those terms can bring.
In part, it’s the need for new barrels for each batch that introduces questions of sustainability into conversations about a whiskey’s nose, palate, and finish. Adams credits classes at Sewanee for increasing her awareness of environmental issues, and thus for her sensitivity to the barrel issue. She minored in environmental studies, and that course of study made her a perfect fit for DendriFund, a nonprofit created by Brown-Forman in 2012.
Today, DendriFund is devoted to supporting environmental initiatives surrounding wood, water, and grain supplies. Adams could see the challenges of communicating the connection between healthy forests and Brown-Forman’s prosperity. In time, she was named the head of DendriFund’s wood-focused working group. “I probably spend more time working on DendriFund than I should,” she says.
A few years ago, Adams’s work with DendriFund took her to a forest near Danville, Kentucky. Hiking alongside forestry consultants and Jeff Stringer, chair of the Forestry and Natural Resources Department at the University of Kentucky, she recalls stopping to assess the understory of what looked to be white oak saplings.
“I thought, ‘Oh! Those are tiny little barrels!’”
What looked like seedlings and saplings were 20- to 30-year-old trees that had been suppressed due to lack of light and nutrients—just like Richman’s trees hundreds of miles south.
In that moment, she felt like she was in a lab on the Domain. She and Stringer got to talking. He had heard of DendriFund and began telling her about a then-nascent initiative concentrated on the pressures confronting white oak in the eastern United States.
She left the woods that day with a call scheduled to Stringer, and took her findings back to her DendriFund colleagues. At that time, the White Oak Initiative was a collection of people and entities with a central idea, and Adams knew that she wanted to help transform the idea into an organization.
The mission of the White Oak Initiative is simple: to maintain the historic range of white oak in the eastern United States. In eastern hardwood forests, younger white oak stocks are declining due to regeneration complications; as a result, without active management, the percentage of white oak could decrease as a share of total timber available on the market in the next 40 to 80 years.
Maintaining the range and health of oak will require monitoring growth and usage rates, handling threats to the supply, and ensuring that everyone from landowners to elected officials to those of us who enjoy the occasional glass of bourbon understands the importance of these trees as a national resource.
In April 2017, the University of Kentucky hosted the Sustainability of White Oak Timber Conference, an event sponsored in part by DendriFund. There, Stringer and others laid the foundations of the initiative.
Now, after a few years of minimal grant-giving, DendriFund has committed funds saved during that period to the White Oak Initiative. In March, DendriFund finalized its first grant to the initiative and expects to contribute much more in the coming years.
Alex Richman likens some of the goals of the White Oak Initiative to conservation efforts put toward the spotted owl. “The owl is an indicator species, and white oak, it’s one of those indicator species. Once you manage for white oak, you’re going to be managing for all types of other species that are beneficial for wildlife and forest health.”
Conservation campaigns depicted the spotted owl as a warm and fuzzy creature of the forest, one that was too cute to lose. For Richman, there’s a lesson to be learned.
“Oak, it’s kind of a ‘warm-fuzzy,’” she says. “People can recognize it.”
Richman and Adams didn’t know each other at Sewanee. They overlapped. They took many of the same classes. “Regrettably,” Alex says, “I don’t remember meeting McCauley at Sewanee, though I imagine she looked regal rocking a gown.” It’s a wonder their paths never crossed.
Lines that appear parallel need only the smallest bump to intersect at a distant point, and last November, McCauley and Alex finally met at the initiative’s first Steering Committee meeting at Brown-Forman. That meeting, despite everything, marked the first time they had exchanged more than your standard Sewanee passing hello.
As the initiative builds momentum, Adams and Richman will undoubtedly continue to be strong voices in its work. Adams will bring her talents to the Planning Committee, and Richman to the Steering Committee. Richman’s work with the Committee for Technical Transfer will assist landowners with technological solutions to the problems facing their oak populations. Both women will serve on the Communications and Public Relations Subcommittee, to communicate to private landowners, buyers, timber companies, universities, legislators, and conservation nonprofits about how best to work for the common goal of maintaining healthy forests by managing for white oak.
In the future, Adams hopes the DendriFund working group she leads will be able to travel to visit Richman so that her colleagues can see firsthand the way Richman manages her family’s land.
As these two women spread the initiative’s message, their audiences will be dissimilar—Adams’s likely seated around conference room tables, Richman’s out in communities that depend on the trees, rocks, and everything in between that the land can provide for their livelihood.
“I find it funny, sometimes, that I’m working on white oak, because I’m one of the most impatient people you will ever meet,” says Adams.
Were they alive today, perhaps George Garvin Brown, Jack Daniel, and Lem Motlow would have foreseen the importance of environmental sustainability to their industry, and understood how the calculus of whiskey functions not only on variable inputs, but also on selfless, long-run thinking. You could say that Brown, Daniel, and Motlow were the kind of people who would miss neither the forest nor the whiskey for the trees. In Adams and Richman, it seems that trait runs in the families.