Just a little over a century ago, hundreds of varieties of corn grew across the fields of the United States, from fast-ripening Champion White Pearl to Silvermine, with its creamy, yellow-white kernels. Every variety tasted a bit different from the next, and when used to make whiskey, the distillate each produced showed a wider range of flavors than the modern drinker typically gets to experience.
Today, almost all corn-based whiskey, including bourbon, is sourced from a single type of corn. But some craft distillers are trying to revive those ancient strains, creating spirits with greater nuance by stretching back to the past. As Ralph Haynes, partner and co-founder of Missouri’s Pinckney Bend explains, “If you want to know what whiskey tasted like prior to the 1930s, you need to start with the raw materials they had.”
Haynes knows a thing or two about America’s largest crop, and how important it is to whiskey. A history buff who wanted to recreate long-gone tastes from the past, he’s released a number of limited-edition whiskeys made from heirloom corn varieties, such as Tennessee Red Cob, Wapsie Valley and Missouri Meerschaum Pipe Corn. Although some families and small farmers grew these breeds, keeping them from vanishing altogether, the corn itself, and even the seeds, were available in very limited quantities. To cultivate Pencil Cob corn, for example, Haynes scouted online and purchased all the five-pound parcels he could procure.
This sort of obsessiveness has become a feature of the craft whiskey movement. But even as producers increase their focus on the sourcing of grains like ancient strains of rye, and even how they’re malted, corn remains the last frontier.
Growing corn for human consumption has fallen out of favor in recent years, as Ann Marshall, co-owner of High Wire Distilling in Charleston, South Carolina, points out. While over 90 million acres are planted in the U.S. every year, 95 percent of what springs from the ground is used for feed and fuel. No wonder most producers lament that the prevailing corn available—#2 Dent corn, named for its dented kernels—has been raised for anything but flavor. “We have bred everything interesting out of the corn in favor of predictable qualities like the sugar and starch content, so it will be more profitable as a fuel source,” Marshall says.
Still, corn has been a food source for humans for thousands of years. And when it came to finding the perfect flavor, High Wire had an advantage going in, not just with corn, but with grains in general. Prior to getting into whiskey, co-owner Scott Blackwell ran a natural and organic bakery business and understood the value of grains. Hence, they have described their spirits as “grain-forward” from the beginning, experimenting with Carolina Gold rice in a four-grain whiskey, and looking to local grits-maker Anson Mills for inspiration in bourbon.
The distillery started to use Jimmy Red Corn, a nearly extinct varietal grown in South Carolina, to make their distinctively nutty Jimmy Red Straight Bourbon Whiskey, made with 100-percent corn. That journey began when food writer John T. Edge relayed to Marshall and Blackwell an exchange he had with a whiskey maker. Concluding a distillery tour, he inquired about the corn used to make the whiskey; it was #2 Dent.
“But what if you used really good corn, or interesting corn, or different corn?” Edge asked. “What would that do?” He never got a satisfactory response, but Blackwell and Marshall were intrigued nonetheless upon hearing the exchange.
Other whiskey makers are utilizing the flavors of vintage corn, too. New York’s Widow Jane and Pennsylvania’s New Liberty have experimented with Bloody Butcher, a ruddy-hued heirloom variety that can yield a surprising black cherry note. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Fugitives Spirits and Knox Whiskey Works are both making whiskey with the Hickory Cane, a variety “prized across the mountain South for roasting ears… and particularly for white cornmeal,” according to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
It’s not just the indies, either: Buffalo Trace, one of the world’s largest producers of bourbon, has devoted about 20 acres on the distillery’s Kentucky farm to heirloom corn varieties. Each of the last three years, a different strain has been planted and then earmarked to distill, age and one day be released as single-estate bourbon expressions. In 2015, the pick was Boone County White corn, the same strain that Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr., used at the distillery in 1870. In 2016, they grew Japonica Striped Corn, and last summer the pick was a conventional strain of corn called CF790 Conventional. This summer, Buffalo Trace says, they’re planning to grow Neon Pink Popcorn, a bright pink corn, with plans to donate the proceeds from the bottle sales to breast cancer research.
This attention to corn varieties in spirits production has spread beyond American whiskey.Jonathan Barbieri, founding director of Pierde Almas, a brand better known for making mezcal, pioneered a limited-edition, unaged Oaxaca Ancestral Corn Whiskey in 2016. In a bid to help keep GMO corn out of Mexico, Barbieri worked with small farmers there to create an economic incentive for them to continue to grow one of the 60 varieties of heritage corn, 35 of which are native to Oaxaca. He also laid some of the corn distillate to rest in wood; that barrel-aged version is slated for release in 2020.
Another producer from Oaxaca, Sierra Norte, has released a trio of aged whiskeys made from yellow, white and black heirloom corn varieties, a project driven by Douglas French, the master distiller of Scorpion Mezcal. Each bottling has its own unique character, though the black corn whiskey is particularly intriguing, with warm, fruity notes of dried cherry and banana.
Most of these whiskies are produced in extremely limited quantities, with hurdles at every turn. It’s a three-year process to determine if a variety is even viable for whiskey. “You have to propagate it; that’s a year,” Haynes explains. “Then you have to find someone to reliably grow it—and that’s a year. Then you have to mash it, ferment it, distill it and put it in a barrel. And that’s a year… and that’s just the quick-aged version.” Securing enough seed to grow into a harvestable quantity, enough for making whiskey without waste, is another challenge. “In general, the heirlooms yield less corn per acre than the hybrids,” he says. “They also take a great deal more effort and expense to grow and get smaller yields than the GMO varieties that are now the American standard.”
So far, the effort has proven worth it. These whiskies yield flavors—from nutty and fruity to simply more intense in their expression of corn—that are completely unique to the category. Just as wine can be made from hundreds of grape varietals, the same possibility exists for heirloom corn whiskey.
“We’re not putting this on the labels or the bottles,” says Blackwell. “On the wine side, they geek out on all this, but they talk about flavor in the end. That’s what matters. Flavor always wins.”