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The Journey Begins

23 September 2014

By Joel Harrison

America is a land of dreams, a place where you can ignite an idea with a mixture of passion and hard work. It is a place that incubates business, art, creative concepts and provides an environment where success can be fast and be global. It is a country where slow growth isn't thought about, where achievement is expected at break-neck speed.

And it provides the Scotch whisky industry with a vital element to the whisky-making process, itself an unhurried schedule of spirit production and patience, waiting for that all important, magical moment when liquid is ready to move from the warehouse to the glass: this element is the cask, often made in America, from native white oak.

I took a trip to the home of these casks, the heartland of America, in a quest to discover the roots of the oak casks, in which Glenfiddich matures their single malt Scotch whisky.

The process started deep in the forests found across the middle stretch of America, where the much sought-after white oak grows. These are not so much trees, but sculptures placed there by Mother Nature. They reach high into the deep blue sky, their quality coming from the fact that they grow tall and straight, making their wood ideal for tightly coopered casks which can, importantly, hold onto spirit as well as impart subtle flavors, color and aromas to the otherwise clear 'new make'.

The average height of an American white oak is around 90 meters and the average age of one used to make a cask is somewhere in the region of, well, start at 75 years and count up from there – these magnificent giants choose to grow individually in these native woodlands, hidden between other species, all vying for precious, nutrient-rich soil and the bright American sunlight.

Finding them and safely felling the ones that are ready is the job of the lumberjack. At this part of the journey, I was greeted on a misty, freezing spring morning by just one man: Tim.

Tim is a local lumberjack and it is his job to locate American white oak trees in his own and his neighbours' woodland, seeking them out in the literal forest of other specimens and, with the aid of just his hardy chainsaw and a tractor, remove the trees before taking them to a local stave mill to be prepared for the cooperage.

Working with just one other person, Tim's job is one of extremes: working mostly in the lush, secluded forest with a backdrop of silence, punctuated only by birdsong or occasional rustle of foliage as wildlife move around him. But when he finds a tree that he feels will make a good cask, handpicked from all the others, the atmosphere dramatically changes as his chainsaw starts up, singing out across the forest with the trees as his audience.

Tim moves fast, assessing the rest of the surrounding area and looking at where he wants the tree to fall. Maximum ease of removal with minimal damage to the other flora and fauna around is his aim, so he will cut clever angles into the base of the trunk, removing just a small slip of wood before the chainsaw is switched off. There is a moment’s silence before, slowly, a loud cracking noise echoes across the forest, as if the watching wildlife are applauding the show from the singing chainsaw.

Eventually, after what seems like minutes but is really seconds, the tree falls and crashes to the ground with an almighty bang, but solid and in tact. Ready to be removed and loaded onto a truck, Tim will take his haul to a local sawmill, where the logs will be turned into staves and made ready for the next important stage of this long journey: the cooper and the cooperage.

The very roots of Glenfiddich lie with William Grant and his first distillation at the distillery on Christmas Day 1887, but the roots of tomorrow's whisky lie firmly in those of the American white oak trees, growing silently for decades before being chosen for the job of cradling spirit into maturity for future generations to enjoy.

Joel Harrison, co-founder of the whisky blog Cask Strength, recently set out to immerse himself in the journey of the world’s most awarded single malt. Over the next few weeks, follow his pursuit, from the forests of Kentucky to the depths of the Glenfiddich warehouses, as he delves into what makes our scotch unique.  The Journey Begins marks the first of Joel’s four contributions to our Ambassadors Blog, which culminate with the exciting new release of Glenfiddich 26 Year Old Excellence.