Whyte & Mackay’s Scottish Oak Programme is one of the most innovative and intriguing initiatives taking place within the Scotch whisky industry today, with potential benefits that will be reaped by whisky makers for generations to come.

Established in 2021 by master whisky maker Gregg Glass, the programme seeks to establish the use of Scottish oak as a raw material within both the Scotch and wider spirits industry. For those unaware, the Scotch whisky industry relies heavily on imported wood for maturing whisky, with the majority of oak casks being made from American or European wood.

There are a handful of reasons Scottish oak isn’t widely used within the whisky industry. Firstly is the availability of Scottish oak; many oak trees were felled in the 17th and 18th century for ship building, resulting in a relative scarcity of oak trees through the UK.

Secondly, because it hasn’t been regularly used, the impact indigenous oak would have on the flavour is somewhat unknown. Similarly, there are some unanswered questions regarding the practical use of Scottish wood for casks - what is the optimum cask size, what is the best way to char the wood, and so on.

The final, and perhaps most influential factor, is cost. Since the early 20th century, bourbon producers in American can only use their barrels to mature their whisky once, creating an abundance of readily available casks. These casks were inexpensive to import and had the additional benefit of having been seasoned by their previous contents.

Similarly, Britain has historically imported large volumes of wine and sherry and any left-over casks soon found new life maturing Scotch whisky. These casks were plentiful, convenient, and quickly proved to impart desirable flavours on the spirit and are still widely used by distillers today.

However, Whyte & Mackay’s project seeks to address the challenges associated with using Scottish oak, paving the way for its continued use in the future.

Even before the programme was officially established, Gregg Glass has been pioneering the use of Scottish oak in whisky production. After working closely with landowners, sawmills and cooperages to develop plans and practices for responsibly sourcing Scottish oak, Glass produced the King of Trees whisky under the Whisky Works brand.

King of Trees was a 10 Year Old Highland blended malt that was part finished in Scottish oak casks. However, this was the just one part of an on-going series of experiments on how to best utilise Scottish oak casks to enhance the flavour of whisky.

The first big landmark for the project was the launch of the Fettercairn 18 Year Old that had been finished in Scottish oak casks. This was the first single malt to come from the programme and it’s been said that the Scottish oak added notes of warm spice and dark berries to Fettercairn’s trademark tropical fruit-led profile.

It’s fitting that Fettercairn was the first single malt to come from the programme since the distillery and the estate it’s built on have already played an important role in the scheme. Oak from the Fasque Estate has used to create some of the casks used for the maturation experiments, while 13,000 oak trees have been planted on the site of an ancient forest at the distillery.

This sustainable element and the idea of future proofing the use of Scottish oak is as important to the programme as the whisky itself. In addition to the saplings planted at Fettercairn, the team is working closely with foresters around Scotland to access wind-felled trees as well as trees that have come from managed forests where they replant felled trees.

The local community is also at the heart of the Scottish Oak Programme. The research being undertaken with Scottish oak will stimulate demand for the material, in turn supporting local businesses and craftspeople. Some of the techniques and equipment used with handling Scottish oak date back to the 1930s and it’s hoped the project will help keep these traditional practices alive for future generations.

Of course Whyte and Mackay aren’t the first company to experiment with Scottish oak. For example, GlenAllachie’s Virgin Oak Series has featured a couple of different malts finished in Scottish oak casks. However what sets Whyte and Mackay apart is the impressive scope of their plans.

At the time of writing, each of the distilleries in Whyte and Mackay’s portfolio have signed up to the initiative and have spirit maturing in Scottish oak casks, making them industry leaders in this regard. This fact, along with the aforementioned community led and sustainability focussed objectives of the project, earned the company the Spirits Business Award for Innovation in Production in 2022.

Whyte and Mackay hope that other distillers and producers will be inspired by their experiments, believing that their findings will ultimately benefit the industry as a whole.

The Scotch whisky industry has always placed a great deal of importance in provenance, with many distilleries boasting about specific strains of barely or showcasing very particular types of sherry or wine-seasoned casks. Being able to say something the lines of “every element of our single malt is 100% Scottish - from barley, to barrel, to bottle” would be a great selling point for any whisky and a massive positive for any company.

It’s no doubt an impressive and ambitious scheme. Having such a large and well respected company such and Whyte and Mackay at the forefront of these developments will hopefully lead to the proliferation of native Scottish oak being used throughout the Scotch and wider drinks industry.

Yet it’s important to remember that this is an experimental programme and we’re still on a discovery of what Scottish oak can offer from a flavour perspective. It would be a cruel irony if Scottish oak creates largely undrinkable Scotch. Fingers crossed for the opposite!