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Staves, headers, and the cooperage industry: Supporting sustainable management of white oak with forest inventory data

Through economic downturns and global pandemics, people thirst for barrel-aged, distilled spirits. Our nation’s forest inventory has come to the aid of the cooperage industry, which must have white oak trees to make barrel staves and headers.

Director’s Choice
A large stack of white oak barrels.
White oak barrels soon to be filled with fine Kentucky bourbons and Tennessee whiskies. USDA Forest Service photo by Thomas J. Brandeis.

Southern Research Station Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) researchers participated virtually in the World Forestry Congress in May 2022. The researchers introduced the international audiences to the long cultural history of distilled spirits in Kentucky and Tennessee, how white oak barrels came to be an integral part of their famous bourbons and whiskies, and the importance of the cooperage and distilling industries to local rural communities.

The researchers also shared examples of how FIA data and tools like the Bourbon Barrel Oak Availability Tool, which was developed in collaboration with Esri, are used for identifying timber sources, guiding mill placement, and ensuring that these forests are sustainably harvested in the face of increasing demand.

State and regional partners – such as the White Oak Initiative, a cooperative group of stakeholders that includes 17 state forestry agencies, Southern Regional Extension Forestry, American Forest Foundation, university and USDA Forest Service researchers, and members of the wood products and distilling industries – use FIA data to enhance white oak sustainability by improving forest practices, raising awareness, and educating industries and policy makers. This highlight shows how national forest inventory data support local forest management and industry decisions, and that these practices can be adapted to other countries.

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Principal Investigators
Tom Brandeis, Supervisory Research Forester
Christopher M. Oswalt, Research Forester
Consuelo Brandeis, Research Forester
4801 - Forest Inventory and Analysis
External Partners
Jeffrey Stringer, University of Kentucky
White Oak Initiative
Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI)