How Heaven Hill Distillery and Independent Stave Co. are helping fund sustainable forestry practices

Allen’s Logging and Sawmill in Deatsville, Kentucky, is a humble work site. Built on a gravel lot, the mill is roofed, yet without walls, and thus open to icy winter winds and searing summer breezes. It’s business without beauty; functionality without frills.

The sounds of growling chainsaws and shrieks from a bandsaw form the soundtrack of a hard day’s labor. Timber felled in nearby and far-flung forests is hauled to the site aboard gurgling diesel trucks, offloaded and stacked mechanically. Those logs are sawn into boards destined for Bardstown-area rickhouses needing remediation, meaning the repair, renewal and life extension of the many old and massive Whiskey-aging buildings dotting the local landscape.

Becoming a supplier of this wood was not the career Gussy Allen ever imagined having. But when a logger thinning out a forest nearby hired him to help 47 years ago, Allen loved the work because it kept him outdoors and challenged him both physically and mentally.

“I started in 1977, and decided on my own to do it,” Allen says proudly. After five years of tree-side tutelage from his boss, he started his own business at the age of 28. The work remains exciting, he says, because every day and every tree is different.

“When you cut it down and bring it to the sawmill, you’ll see there’s never one tree that has the same grain pattern as another,” he says. “And when you’re sawing white oak, the smell of it is the smell of Whiskey in that lumber.”

Allen’s mentor also taught him to care for the forest every day so he could continue harvesting it well into the future. Like any crop, he says, timber must be harvested regularly, albeit with gaps of 15 to 18 years in between.

“When you harvest it that way, you can go back and cut the same boundary of timber again,” Allen says, leaning back in his office chair—possibly the only bit of luxury in his spartan office. The small wood structure is a humble place where workers grab a quick lunch at a single table before returning to the sawmill or heading to a work site. “We’ve cut several farms five different times, and they still have timber for the future.”

Though his business is smartly forward-looking, proper forestry management isn’t always practiced, Allen says. That assessment troubles American Whiskey companies and cooperages that depend heavily on white oak for barrels and rickhouses. While some rickhouses are built from concrete and steel, the barrels within them are nearly always made of quercus alba, a single species of American white oak that flourishes across a wide swath of forests running from the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the western edge of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

Logs from these trees—in particular, those with lengthy, knot-free trunks—are ideal for sawing into long floorboards for rickhouses, many of which are sold to Heaven Hill Distillery. Other logs destined to become staves also come from similar trees. Once felled, the trunks are cut into 39-inch logs that, at a sawmill, are cut into quarters known as bolts. Those bolts are cut again and milled into 35-inch-long staves that will be sent to one of our several cooperages like Independent Stave Company (ISC): the world’s largest barrel manufacturer.

Wood planks like this one can become part of Heaven Hill Distillery’s rickhouses.


“The guy that taught me how to cut timber said to me, ‘When you walk up to any tree, if you’re always scared of it, you’ll live to be an old man,’” says Allen. “And don’t ever think you know it all, either, because something you don’t expect will happen. I love the work, but it can be dangerous.”

For much of his career, Allen’s tool of choice was a Husqvarna chainsaw with a 20-inch bar, though a tree with an extra-wide stump would require one with an imposing 36-inch bar. (For comparison, chainsaws for home use have 10- to 16-inch bars and their engines have less than half the horsepower of a commercial saw.) Though chainsaws are still widely used, insurance companies favor the use of human-operated machines that grapple a tree, hold it steady and cut it down safely. Allen acknowledges that such machinery is costly while allowing that their safety and efficiency are great advancements.

Loggers use heavy machinery to load logs onto trucks for transport.

“You still have to have an experienced logger on the job, though,” Allen adds.

Josh Allen, Gussy’s nephew and co-owner in the business, says experienced loggers can fell trees with minimal damage to less mature timber nearby. Their experienced eyes can easily spot trees that are ripe for harvest—at least 20 to 30 inches wide at the stump and with straight, tall trunks without knots.

To fell a tree safely, Josh says, “You first have to know where you want to drop the tree. Then you judge where to place your notch (a wedge-shaped cut near the stump) based on how the tree is leaning. That will make it fall where you want.”

In most cases, anyway. Sometimes, heavy machinery is required to pull a tree away from its natural lean to be felled elsewhere for safer removal. Such mechanical manipulation becomes more difficult with unusual terrain and, worst of all, mud.

“You’ve got low ground, swampy ground, flat ground, hills that are moderate and serious hills that are straight up and down,” Gussy says. “You have to cut roads below those trees to get that timber out. Like I said, it’s a dangerous business, but I’ve never really been hurt—knock on wood!”


With the Bourbon boom commanding more oak barrels than ever, companies such as ISC and Heaven Hill Distillery began discussing how to ensure America’s oak forests were managed sustainably.

“We know that recent research on existing white oak stocks show they’re in pretty decent shape for the near term, but there are some concerns about long-term initiatives,” says Rachel Nally, director of environment and sustainability at Heaven Hill Distillery. “For our part, the best way to act on that is to invest in folks out in the forest touching those natural resources that become our barrels.”

ISC and Heaven Hill Distillery determined the best way to get involved was to sponsor scholarships for Kentucky’s Master Logger Program. According to Bob Bauer, executive director of the Kentucky Forest Industries Association, the Master Logger Program teaches logging methods that benefit industries dependent upon wood by caring for forests intentionally. The program was developed following the 1998 passage of the Kentucky Forest Conservation Act, which regulates the Commonwealth’s commercial loggers by requiring the use of best management practices to help protect water quality.

“We want to see those forests sustained and well managed,” Bauer says, adding that oak timber is particularly valuable. “The better they’re managed, the better the wood that comes out and the better the products that come from that wood.”

Among the program’s goals, Bauer says, is not cutting young trees (10 to 12 years old), clearcutting forests or damaging younger trees while harvesting mature ones. Irresponsibly-managed harvests also create uneven, overly large openings in forests, which can compound water runoff and erode a forest’s floor.

“The Kentucky Master Logger Program is designed to educate people to follow best management practices so there’s no erosion in the logging job or other problems afterward,” he says. “Good harvesting also creates beneficial openings that let sunlight down to younger trees to help them grow. And when you leave the young white oak in there, those trees grow to become your next forest” while outgrowing less desirable species such as maple and poplar.


Since Kentucky requires a state-certified master logger be on-site and in charge of every commercial operation (excluding horse loggers), loggers are required to take a three-day course focusing on several topics such as water quality laws, OSHA regulations, best management practices, chainsaw safety and directional felling. Once loggers complete the course, they must also complete six hours of continuing education courses every three years. Those not fulfilling those requirements will lose their master logger status.

Bauer says the certification commitment means sacrificing three days of pay to be in the classroom rather than at work. So, to help offset the costs, Heaven Hill Distillery and ISC cover the course fee. According to Bauer, the ISC and Heaven Hill Distillery sponsorship has covered course fees for more than 500 loggers.

“[It’s] nice that they take that burden off of them,” Bauer says. “They’re given a nice gift box with Heaven Hill merchandise, which they really like, and a nice lunch on the last day is paid for as well.”

Heaven Hill Distillery’s Nally attended a logger education class to get a feel for the program herself. When she asked some of the loggers what they get from the class, she received a lot of positive feedback.

“They were so appreciative of Independent Stave and Heaven Hill working to offer them that opportunity to learn more,” Nally says. “Since it benefits our industry, we think it’s important to do something for people who’d rather be out in the forest than in a classroom.”

Both Allens were certified years ago and each keeps up with continuing education programs. As veteran loggers, both men praised the program for protecting forests and waterways and raising safety awareness.

“There was a good amount of chainsaw safety that I found helpful,” Josh Allen begins, “and we learned a little more in-depth stuff about how much money is produced in Kentucky by our industry. It broadens your understanding of the whole industry to know such things.”

Gussy Allen walks through one of his sustainably managed forests.

While much of the certification centers on better forestry practices, Gussy Allen says some of it boils down to being a good neighbor at active logging sites.

“With our trucks and equipment, it’s easy to track mud onto the road, which people don’t want on their cars,” he says. The solution is putting down a gravel road at the logging site to keep the mud where it belongs, as well as restoring the site and planting grass seed when the work is completed. “It’s good that it’s a lot more regulated than when I started, because if they didn’t do that, everything could be destroyed.” Thankfully, with sustainable management in practice, we’re ensuring the future of these forests—and therefore Whiskey barrels—will be secure for many generations to come.

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