How Whiskey Distilleries Are Working to Bring Back Heirloom and Heritage Corn Varieties

by Amy Zavatto

6/19/19

When you stand in front of the whiskey section at your favorite liquor store trying to select a great bottle from the plethora of possible picks, there are a multitude of factors that will drive your choice: price, trusted personal recommendation, an article you read, maybe even a cool label or a good story behind it. But here’s a little fact that might bring the task at hand into focus — or, perhaps, further muddy your muddling: In all likelihood, the juice in most or nearly all of the bottles you see is the result of Number 2 Dent corn, or Reid’s Yellow Dent corn — a breed that won best in show at the 1893 World’s Fair for, among other things, its dependable consistency and adaptable nature. It’s also the very same corn used in high fructose corn syrup.

Lots of Whiskey Means Lots of Dent Corn

Over 100 years later, Number 2 Yellow Dent has become the predominant corn grown in the US for human consumption, from taco shells and corn chips to cornmeal to, yes, high fructose corn syrup. Oh yeah, and for bourbon whiskey, too. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, bourbon production alone has gone up 115 percent in the last five years; and national trade organization the Distilled Spirits Council reports that last year American whiskey brought in $3.6 billion in distiller revenue (and that’s just US sales). That’s a lot of whiskey and a lot of Yellow Dent corn.

GMO Ingredients and Liquor

Biodiversity Loss in the Food System

But in recent years, some distillers are ditching the Dent for heirloom corn varieties. And perhaps not a moment too soon. Last May, a report on a three-year, 50-country study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems came to the alarming conclusion that over one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. And while it had a slightly more upbeat tone on solutions, the 2019 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, revealed some disturbing conclusions — including that, of the 6,000 species that have been cultivated for food use, 66 percent of crop production comes from only nine of them. Nine!

So what? Keeping a healthy, diverse mix of ecosystems — plants, bugs, animals, fish, birds, bacteria — not only makes things more interesting (and tasty), but it’s also better equips an ecosystem to defend itself against maladies, predators, and all other forms of problems. Not to mention, you’re simply losing the history of a place — kind of like wiping out your entire family tree.

Preserving Biodiversity Through Heritage Corn Whiskies

“Reid’s Yellow Dent Number 2, it’s what we see everywhere and what’s most commonly used,” says Keith Meyer, Chief Compliance Officer and Distiller for Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven, Missouri, which five years ago began to partner with local farmers to grow heirloom corn varieties like Wapsie Valley, Hickory Cane, Pencil Cob and Boone County White for their Heritage Whiskey line. Each year since the project began, they’ve released a single heirloom variety whiskey. In 2016, it was Hickory Cane, a rich heirloom variety that produces whiskey that tastes like a walnut covered in molasses. In 2017, their fruity Pencil Cobb corn whiskey offered beautiful, distinctive cherry notes; last year, they went with Boone County, a dead ringer for rye with its peppery spiciness.

Biodiversity Tastes Better

And therein may lie the key to whiskey’s role in bolstering plant biodiversity: Spirits made with heirloom, heritage grain, corn and fruits taste good. Talk to any distiller working with heirloom corn and others working with heirloom grains and grasses, like barley, wheat and rye, and you find the same thread: there’s flavor in those stalks that simply doesn’t exist in the monoculture that is Big Ag varieties.

It’s what drove Charleston, South Carolina’s High Wire Distilling founder Scott Blackwell down the rabbit hole of seed exploration and cultivation, spending countless hours consulting with Glenn Roberts, president of the heritage-grain minded not-for-profit Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and owner of Anson Mills, and Dr. Brian Ward, a plant research scientist at Clemson University. Blackwell’s also about to make his second pilgrimage to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Texacoo, Mexico, an agricultural research hub whose sole purpose is creating food security, and who has 28,000 heritage and hybrid corn seeds alone, stored in a below-surface, climate controlled bunker of sorts.

Bourbon is Mostly Corn

“Bourbon was interesting to me in that 70-plus percent of the [main ingredient] is corn, yet producers talk about the wheat or the rye in it,” he says. Indeed, to be labeled bourbon, the Federal Standards of Identity require that it must contain a minimum of 51 percent corn, although it’s often more. While you can certainly detect the addition of certain grains — the softness of wheat or the spiciness of rye—corn is the main event.

Variety Matters When it Comes to Flavor

“More than 50 percent of flavor comes from the barrel, they say. But that seems a little cattywamp, with corn being such a high level of [the mash] bill. They say corn is like a mushroom, absorbing all other flavor and it’s a blank canvas,” continues Blackwell. “I said I don’t believe that. Variety matters. We’ve experimented with 16 to 18 different corns; everything from different whites to yellows to blues to reds.” While he’s marveled at the flavors from the myriad strains he’s worked with (especially the blue-tone varieties and the dead-ringer blueberry notes that come from high levels of the polyphenol anthocyanin in them), Blackwell’s focus keeps coming back to a once-endangered South Carolina strain called James Island Red, or Jimmy Red, that, thanks to him, is no longer in complete peril. “It has a richer honey sweetness versus a sugar sweetness. When we first put it in the fermenter, we noticed that it has this thick oil cap that we hadn’t even seen from other heirloom varieties,” he says. “It’s super ester-y and fruity. My wife says it smells like banana Laffy Taffy.”

People Have a Thirst for Heritage Flavors

Blackwell began by working with two acres and change, which yielded 3,800 pounds of corn, making for about 120 gallons of whiskey in total. After aging it for two years, Blackwell released it with zero notion that anyone would care. He was out harvesting sorghum, he remembers, when he got a call from his wife: It all sold out in 11 minutes flat. This year, if all goes well and weather cooperates, he’ll be growing 500,000 pounds of it.

It’s not a cheap endeavor — just as they all taste different, they all grow differently, too. More often than not standard harvest machinery doesn’t work and adjustments must be made, and that might include some hands-on work. That makes heritage varieties expensive to grow — farmers spend about 16 times more on his heritage breed corn than on ubiquitous Yellow Dent, says Blackwell. But he sells it at a higher price, too, so the math balances out for now.

Making Farming Adjustments for Heritage Corn Varieties

“These corn stalks have standability issues – they tend to fall over in a heavy wind; they’re not strong like the hybrids. But we found that planting them closer together helps to self-correct the problem,” says President and Head Distiller of New York’s Widow Jane Distillery, Lisa Roper Wicker, of the Baby Dent corn project she’s helming at Widow Jane. Baby Jane is an open-pollinated cross between two heirloom varieties: Bloody Butcher, which dates back to 1845 in the US, and Wapsie Valley, favored by the Amish and in existence here since around 1850. While Roper Wicker didn’t kick off the project at Widow Jane, she was tapped to lead the charge because of her work with Bloody Butcher at the Starlight Distillery in Borden, Indiana.

“It has this incredible richness to it, with heavy cream notes. When mashing, people comment on how good it smells,” she says of the Baby Dent, some of which is available in very small, coveted quantities, but the brunt of which has been put down in barrel to age while the project continues to grow. “It knocks your socks off, it’s so delicious smelling and tasting. There’s a lot more personality there.” The comparison Roper Wicker and others seem to favor is that of the tomato: Sure, a hot-house tomato tastes fine. It’s not horrible in the least. But when you compare the flavor to a Mr. Stripey or a Pantano or a Hartman’s Yellow Gooseberry, the difference is abundantly, deliciously clear.

“So many [plants] have been bred out, but right now there is curiosity to try things,” says Meyer. “It’s not this industrialized corn. Some may love it and some may not, but it’s flavor and character. And history, too.”

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