The Newest Bartender Obsession: Mellow Corn

Previously unknown outside of Kentucky, Mellow Corn has become the latest bartender obsession—thanks, in large part, to its hokey label. Robert Simonson gets behind the rise of a classic corn whiskey underdog.

mellow corn liquor bottle

The owners of The Drink, a small bar on a side street in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were feeling charity-minded earlier this year. They wanted to put a shot on the menu, the proceeds from which would go toward a good cause.

“We were looking for something that was a little different, that would stand out,” said Nika Carlson, an owner of the bar. The eventual winner: the newest bartender darling, Mellow Corn.

In America’s current, whiskey-obsessed climate, it was perhaps only a matter a time before bartenders gave Mellow Corn a considered look. Born in 1945, Mellow Corn remains a relatively obscure Kentucky whiskey. It is not a bourbon. It is not a rye. It’s a corn whiskey, but not a whole lot like the other corn whiskeys that have flooded the market in recent years. Those spirits are by and large moonshine—or unaged raw spirit. By contrast, Mellow Corn is aged four years. It’s also bottled in bond, clocking in at 100-proof—something few whiskeys can boast these days.

“It’s an industry secret—something bartenders and service people know about,” Carlson says explaining why she chose such a dark horse liquor for fundraising purposes.

Like Fernet Branca and Rittenhouse Rye before it, Mellow Corn has become a bartenders’ pet, a thing they keep on their back bars and work into drinks as much for the principle of the thing as for how it tastes. These products stand as a credo for the bars and bartenders that use them—a philosophy that supports liquid authenticity, lesser-sung liquor genres and time-honored brands that consumers may have forgotten. Lock & Key in Los Angeles uses it in their Whiskey Sours. The Dutch in New York employs it in a cocktail on every menu. Trick Dog in San Francisco always offers a shot-and-beer combination called High and Mellow: Miller High Life and Mellow Corn.

“I think it’s a very nice expression of corn whiskey,” says Morgan Schick, creative director at Trick Dog. “You can taste the grain, and it’s got a very pleasant frosted-flakes thing. It falls in line with what we are trying to do with our American whiskey list at Trick Dog, which is to showcase inexpensive, delicious, classic brands.”  Make no mistake: Trick Dog is a fancy cocktail bar with an international reputation. But it’s also a member of a new breed of bar that is bucking against cocktail pretentions of the recent past. As such, a shot of Mellow Corn owns a natural place next to the more epicurean mixtures on the bar’s menu.

But the whiskey’s secret weapon may be its label design. Sunshine yellow, with a hyper-literal illustration of a barrel resting on stalks of ripe corn, it may the hokiest packaging in the liquor business. There’s something about a good whiskey hiding in plain sight behind a corny label (sorry) that appeals to an sophisticated urbanite’s sense of irony.

While there is an element of discovering something obscure at play in the recent rise of Mellow Corn, bartenders aren’t exactly stumbling upon it while trolling the dusty bottom shelves of their local liquor store. Heaven Hill, the company that now owns Mellow Corn, has made a concerted effort recently to extol the virtues of this long-neglected brand, which has resulted in increased sales and distribution. Once a product seldom seen outside of Kentucky and the immediate environs, it is now available in markets from New York to California.

“Mellow Corn has always been the corn whiskey to be taken seriously,” says Larry Kass, Heaven Hill’s Director of Corporate Communications. “But really, there hasn’t been much of a corn whiskey market until three or four years ago. It brings a bit of gravitas to this category that has typically been about moonshine and mason jars.”

Kass knew the wind was changing directions four years ago when Jim Meehan, the vaunted face of celebrated Manhattan cocktail bar PDT, pigeonholed him at Whiskeyfest and asked, “You guys do Mellow Corn, don’t you?’”

“That was the harp-and-God-light moment,” recalls Kass. “Someone noticed!”

Under American law, to be labeled a corn whiskey, the mash bill must be as least 80 percent corn. (In contrast, bourbon need only contain 51 percent corn.) “It’s basically bourbon on steroids,” says Kass.

But that is arguably less important than the aging requirements. Corn whiskey can’t touch the new, charred white-oak barrels that bourbon is stored in. It must rest in used or un-charred barrels. Since new barrels are expensive, aged corn whiskey typically spends its days in used casks. This explains the relatively light straw color of the four-year-old Mellow Corn.

While Heaven Hill’s marketing push, bartenders’ love of an underdog and the fact that the stuff plain tastes good have all played a role in Mellow Corn’s sudden popularity, the whiskey’s secret weapon may be its label design. Sunshine yellow, with a hyper-literal illustration of a barrel resting on stalks of ripe corn, it may the hokiest packaging in the liquor business. But there’s something about a good whiskey hiding in plain sight behind a corny label that appeals to an sophisticated urbanite’s sense of irony. When Heaven Hill takes its wares to whiskey festivals and tastings, says Kass, it’s the Mellow Corn t-shirts that the bartenders clamor for the most.

“If you can see Mellow Corn on the shelf and not be intrigued by the label and name, I’m not sure about your priorities,” says Kat Kinsman, editor-in-chief at Tasting Table, and an avowed Mellow Corn lover. “I’m sick to death of brand-new, faux-old distillations that seem to fetishize a history that didn’t actually take place; but this, so far as I can tell, is the real deal.”

It is, in fact, the real deal. Mellow Corn still bears the label it did in 1945. (Look closely at it and you’ll see the copyright.) And Heaven Hill knows better than to mess with such built-in, retro authenticity.

“We might clean it up,” says Kass. “We might retouch it, but we’re not going to change that label. It’s the original.”

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