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In this episode of “Next Round,” VinePair CEO and founder Adam Teeter speaks to Ed Bello of Bulleit Bourbon and Eric Sprague of American Forests. While an unlikely pair, Bulleit recently teamed up with American Forests to launch their Frontier Fund, which hopes to restore the white oak population across the Eastern United States by planting 1 million trees over the next five years.
Bulleit has long been committed to sustainability, and this initiative is just another step in the legacy of its eco-conscious policy. Founded in 1987, the brand immediately focused on reducing its carbon emissions while designing its distillery, which is now a Zero Waste to Landfill facility. From there, the brand looked to the future and realized the next key move would be to protect the white oak tree, which is integral to the whiskey-making process. This led to a natural conversation with American Forests, the longest-standing national forest conservation group.
Throughout this episode, Sprague and Bello emphasize the initiative’s role in promoting sustainability and building a better future for all.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York. I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes on Monday in order to give you a clear picture of what’s going on in the world of wine, beer, and spirits. Today, I’m talking with Ed Bello, global brand director of Bulleit Bourbon, and Eric Sprague, VP of forest restoration at American Forests. Guys, thank you so much for joining me.
Ed: Thank you for having us.
Eric: You bet.
A: So, before we jump into our larger conversation, I’d love to understand why today we’re on a podcast where I’m interviewing both you, Ed the global brand director of Bulleit, but also Eric, the VP for forest restoration. So what is the connection between Bulleit Bourbon and American Forests?
Ed: Well, as you may have heard, Bulleit just launched the Bulleit Frontier Fund, which is really our foundational commitment to the sustainability of the bar hospitality industry but also, very important, the communities and the environment surrounding those. And one of the things that we identified is, how can we really help the restoration of forests, and the protection and restoration of forests. And with that, that brought us to American Forests and our partnership with Eric and his wonderful organization to plant a million trees over the next five years.
E: And I’ll add, too. I think we’re all familiar with this false narrative: It’s either the economy versus the environment. This is a great story of how we’re protecting the environment, enhancing important values of forests, and creating jobs and great bourbon. It’s a great story.
A: So, let’s talk about American Forests. So obviously, I know that there is a connection in terms of trees with oxygen, climate change, et cetera. Can you tell me a little bit about the American Forests as an organization. What you guys do and what your mission is?
E: Sure. American Forests, we’re the longest-standing national forest conservation group in the United States, founded in 1875. Over that timeframe, we’ve been a servant leader, leading discussions at tough times in the country’s history where we’ve lost forests for lots of reasons. And today with climate change, having drastic impacts on the state and health of our forests, American Forests is working across this country in key areas like white oak here in the central hardwoods and Eastern United States to help restore those forests, and to overcome those threats.
A: So obviously, we have the threats of climate change and wildfires and things like that. But then also, we have people who harvest wood to make all the different products that we use daily: furniture, houseware paper, et cetera. But then obviously also bourbon. So how is the connection here in terms of Bulleit’s connection to replanting forests, as well as being a large consumer, probably, of oak in the first place? How does that connection play out? And when did you decide that that was something that you need to get involved in, Ed?
Ed: Yeah, I think I’m going to answer it in a couple different ways. One of which is really this commitment to the environment into a more sustainable future, protection of trees, and the sustainable future of forestry. It comes out of our long legacy of believing in sustainability, right? If we go way back to when we opened up the Bulleit Distilling Company — even started the plans for the Bulleit Distilling Company — we put sustainability at the heart of it. We focused on, as we developed that site, we focused on reducing our carbon emissions, water conservation, waste management. It’s a Zero Waste to Landfill facility. So it was already at the beginning. Sustainability was already at the heart of the brand from the get-go. Then we opened our visitor center with a lot of the same sustainability thinking in built. We partnered with the University of Kentucky to create The Greenhouse there. A large greenhouse that all of our garnishes for all of our cocktails come from that greenhouse in partnership with the University of Kentucky. The facility has our buses to take folks to and from the distillery that are all green energy. The source of it is all green energy. And then we just launched recently, you may have heard about the announcement of our new distillery, our Lebanon distillery. In Lebanon, Ky., which will open next summer. And that distillery is going to be the largest American whiskey distillery that will be completely carbon neutral. Really exciting for us, really exciting development. So again, building sustainability at the get-go. And then as we look to the sustainability for the industry for the future, one of the key things that’s, as you say, critical to our industry and to the consumers’ enjoyment of whiskey is white oak. And therefore the barrels and the trees that the white oak allows us to have. And so again, that’s where this natural conversation with American Forests came up, which is, we want to really help the environment. We want to create a sustainable industry and we want to allow consumers to continue to enjoy their wonderful Bulleit Bourbon for many, many years to come. But again, whilst fighting climate change, whilst protecting the forest, and enabling a better future for our consumers and everyone else to enjoy.
A: So in the last decade or so, if not longer, there’s been a massive bourbon boom in this country, and there’s been a lot more people looking for bourbon, making bourbon, et cetera. And there’s been a few brands now who’ve talked a lot about the threat of white oak in the U.S. that we could be consuming more than we have right now. Do you have an idea, either Eric or Ed, at how much white oak at this point we are using as a bourbon industry? And do you know of — obviously this is a great initiative — but what other initiatives are also being done in order to try to drive more awareness to the fact that we need to be replanting the forests, not just harvesting them?
Ed: I can’t speak to the total industry, but I do know I can speak to what Bulleit knows and what Bulleit is doing. It’s generally about two barrels per tree. And the beauty of what we’re doing with Eric is we’re going to ensure that for every tree that we cut down, we’re at least planting one tree, and then doing more. So it’ll allow us to be completely neutral. And quite frankly, we expect to be positive to the environment, when you take into account some of the other added benefits of what we’re doing from planting these trees over the next five years.
E: Yeah. That’s great, Ed, and I’ll just add on to that. Across the region, across the entire Eastern United States, where the white oak is what bourbon and winemakers rely on, grows. We’re growing more white oak out in the woods than is being used. So there is this what you would call a net positive growth to removals, throughout the region. So it’s not a question of, “Are we using too much white oak?” It’s more of a question looking forward. You walk in the forest, pick a forest in the Eastern United States, you’re going to see a lot of big white oak, depending on where you are. But if you look down at the forest floor, you’re going to find a near absence of white oak. And that’s the real challenge we’re facing. We’ve got some large mature oaks out there by volume. It’s still the most abundant tree in the Eastern United States. But almost a complete lack of regeneration in many important areas. And that’s for a lot of reasons. There are things like land use patterns, we’re losing forests at a higher rate. There are too many deer in certain places. There are pests and pathogens like the gypsy moth that are causing some challenges for white oak, but the real challenge is regeneration. The abundance of white oak we have now, and it’s making it so valuable to wood products and to bourbon, is that forests were disturbed in the past. Natural, low-intensity wildfires were common. Indigenous people set fire throughout the Eastern United States. And that created the stage for white oak to take advantage of that disturbance. And for many good reasons, we’ve decided that wildfires are something in the Eastern United States that just aren’t compatible with the way we grow and live. And so we’ve stopped that disturbance. And because of that, we’re seeing tree species like red maple and sugar maple beginning to take preeminence and dominance over certain forest stands. And when they do that, they’re creating a shade that just shades out oak seed.
A: Interesting. And so how were they able to create that dominance? Or was it just because they proliferate more quickly or more easily, or because as you said, because of those smaller wildfires, there’s more fertile soil that allows the oak to grow?
E: Yeah. It’s really interesting. A lot of trees have their own strategy for surviving and gaining dominance. White oak, what it does is it’ll sit in that understory for a long time. And then when a fire comes through or a wind storm comes through and knocks down, it quickly takes advantage of that light. Not too much, not too little, but when you’ve got a long period of time with no disturbance, you have these trees slowly take over, and oaks will just die out, because they’re not getting that light that they need. And so reintroducing disturbance through management, or through prescribed fire or through tree planting, can help restore that. And that’s why we’re so excited to be working with Bulleit on this initiative.
A: Interesting, so then when we are harvesting white oak now for bourbon, and Eric this may be a question more for you than Ed although Ed, you may know the answer as well, are we pulling these woods mostly from private lands? From families who have a forest and they see this as an investment opportunity and they’re managing the forest themselves and that’s where the oaks are coming from? Or are we pulling any from public lands? How does that work if we do? I’m really curious where the oak specifically is coming from, and then where you guys are replanting it.
E: The vast majority of oak being used for barrels, and really for all wood products, does come from private lands. The private landowners are the largest landowners by number across the Eastern United States. Public lands like our national forests and state lands and parks are also strongholds for white oak and a key focus for us to make sure that we’re regenerating oak to sustain it in the long term. But that private landowner is a key challenge that we struggle with. One of the threats we didn’t talk about is poor harvesting practices. Where a landowner might be approached by a logger who wants to come in and take the biggest and best trees, and then what’s left are other white oaks that just aren’t as well suited genetically to take advantage of that opportunity. And so it creates this pattern of us taking out the best white oaks and leaving the ones that are less adaptable, less suitable for wood products and wildlife in the future to take over. And so it’s about educating landowners about management practices, how to deal with those situations, and then working with them and the public land managers to restore white oak and implement practices that encourage white oak over the long term. So for our partnership with Bulleit, we’re just getting started. We’ve got a five-year partnership, we’re thinking about a range of practices that range from planting trees and pastures that are not regenerating naturally, to working with forest land managers to restore them in new and innovative ways to bring back white oak.
A: Interesting. So, you said that the brand has been connected to sustainability for a very long time, but where did this idea specifically come from? How were you made aware of the issue in the beginning, and how did you initially identify American Forests?
Ed: So the thing about Bulleit, I think the ethos of Bulleit is — and Eric what you were saying it just reminded me of why we did this, and why we came to you all. We’re frontier whiskey. And the heart of Bulleit is supporting and championing and collaborating with folks who are pushing the frontier forward. And part of what exactly that means to me is what you heard Eric talk about, which is how they’re looking at really the cutting-edge practices of forest protection, and of reforesting, reforestation, and whatnot. And so they were the perfect partner for us, because if you look at folks who are doing the cutting edge if you will, leading the cutting edge of these practices, it’s Eric and his organization. So that’s why we went there, frankly, first and foremost. And there’s several folks out there doing this type of stuff, but really American Forests is really the team that’s doing it, I would say, in the most cutting-edge and sustainable way. And then for Bulleit and where did the idea come from? One of the things that I’m proud of is I’m part of a team that passionately believes in this. The team that works on Bulleit lives sustainability themselves. And it came out of some meetings that we were in, with some of our supply folks, some of the folks on my team, and we were talking about, “Where do we go next?” We’re working on our distilling. We’re working on the parts we control. We’re also working with our suppliers on the front end to source grains that are within 25 miles of our distillery. That’s where all of our corn comes from. So we’re working in everything we control. And then we said, where’s the gap? Where’s the next gap? And the gap was in the barrels, because that comes later down in the distillation and maturation part of the process to make whiskey. And so we said, “Well, let’s go work on that now.” Because we’d been working on the distilling side of it. And really the next phase was the barrels. Which is obviously where we mature the distillate that is where the whiskey comes from.
A: That makes a lot of sense. So what else is a part of this campaign in order to drive awareness? Obviously, we are chatting ‘cause I find it interesting. But what else are you doing as a brand to make consumers aware of the fact that we have this problem with white oak and that they’re not regenerating in the way that they could be, and should be in the Eastern United States. And that there’s now an initiative to replant those white oak. And how can consumers also get involved to help with this mission and the mission of American Forests, besides just obviously buying bottles of Bulleit?
Ed: Well, for us, it’s really about education, right? Making the commitment and doing it. But it’s also about education, because the more we can make consumers, and bartenders who are very passionate about the environment aware of it, the more they can be involved. And so what we’re doing is, is heavy social media. We’ve already announced it in some of our social media channels, Instagram, Facebook, et cetera. And then we’re going to keep doing that. We’re going to keep talking about it throughout the year. And then we’re also really spending a lot of time educating our own commercial and our own ambassador and trade organizations and bartenders on this particular topic, because Bulleit’s passionate about this. Bulleit’s passionate about the environment and fighting climate change, and leaving a better environment for the future. So we’re going to educate through the trade and the bartending community. And like I said, through our ambassadors out in the field as well, so that more and more folks are aware of it and then can also get involved to help in this mission. And there’s a couple different ways to do it: One, folks can go straight to American Forests and support them in what they’re doing. They can also come to the Bulleit website and look at our Bulleit Frontier Fund and find the ways to get involved there on the Bulleit website, and through the Frontier Fund as well.
E: Well, I was just going to add, that’s so important. This work that we’re doing with Bulleit is going to be impactful, and we can talk about what some of those outcomes we expect to be, but the scale is huge. We’re talking about the entire Eastern United States where you can find white oak, and these challenges we’re finding are throughout that area. So the extent that this initiative can drive actions across for other distilleries, universities, conservation groups, that’s a key outcome of what we’re doing. We’re a partner of the White Oak Initiative that’s looking to think through how they can learn from this initiative and other initiatives, to meet the challenge across the Eastern United States.
A: So what are the benefits that we could expect to see from your work with Bulleit?
E: Well, I’ll geek out a little bit about the white oak itself. It’s such an awesome tree. It’s my favorite tree, of course. But white oak is probably the most ecologically important tree species in the Eastern United States. You can think about it from the wildlife food source perspective. One white oak tree can produce up to 7,000 acorns in a year, which is hugely important for black bears, blue jays, and wild turkeys. Also, as it matures, it gets this great, flaky bark that are really important roosting sites for bats. It’s also important for insects. There was a study done in the Mid-Atlantic that showed white oak is the most important species for butterflies and moths. It can create a habitat for over 500 species of butterflies and moths — more than any other woody plant in Eastern United States. It’s also a big tree. It can get up to a hundred feet tall, could be four feet thick, and live for hundreds of years. And when you think about that, half the tree’s biomass — that is the mass of the material of the tree — is carbon. That’s a lot of carbon being stored through white oak forests and by the white oak tree. And so it’s value to sequester carbon is huge. So the next five years, we’re working to plant 1 million trees with Bulleit. The outcomes we’re expecting to get include over 650,000 metric tons of carbon stored. A massive amount. We’re also working to build these plantings in a way that can provide critical air- quality benefits. Oaks have massive canopies that can block out pollutants and keep them from entering people’s lungs. So we expect over that lifetime, 74,000 pounds of air pollutants to be removed per year. That’s equivalent to removing 1,000 cars from the road. So a huge benefit. Also, white oaks have these massive root systems. The root systems themselves can be twice as wide as the crowns of the tree canopy. And they also have deep, deep roots, too, to hold them in place and hold the soil in place. So through those benefits, white oaks can filter and slowly release water to streams over time, a critical watershed provision. Our tree plantings over the next five years are expected to create 75 million gallons of runoff conserved each year. So there’s some great benefits for carbon, habitat, air quality, and water, and that’s why we’re so excited to be working with Bulleit.
A: That’s very, very cool. So Ed, one last question for you. So in terms of the positioning of this, you definitely built a brand in which people care about sustainability, your customers care about sustainability. But how do you think this will also benefit the brand? Does it just reinforce your sustainability message? Do you think that this could also help you guys be sort of the champion of helping to regenerate forests? And your hope is that other bourbon brands sign on? What’s the end goal of this besides what you’re doing in the short-term with American Forests?
Ed: Ultimately, I think that’s a really good question. And if I think of one thing that sits at the heart of it, it’s that we want to raise the standard for making American whiskey. And we want to be the benchmark brand in that way. If I think of the history of Bulleit, it’s always been that challenger brand that has shaken the norm up. When Tom founded the brand in ‘87, he did it in a way that no one else was doing it. He created a high-rye recipe. He basically up-ended the industry, went to bartenders, and really worked with bartenders to build this brand from day one — very differently than some of the historical traditional American whiskey brands. And we want to now bring that to the world of sustainability and how American whiskey brands and companies make the product and raise the standard for how it’s made and what the impact is on the environment. And as I mentioned, if every day, we could do something to educate more consumers about it, make the product more sustainable day after day after day, I think we’ll make a difference.
A: Awesome. Well Ed, Eric. I want to thank you both so much for taking the time to join me to chat about this really cool initiative between Bulleit and American Forests. And guys, thanks so much for taking the time.
Ed: Thank you, Adam.
E: Yeah thanks, Adam. That was fun.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity