Most true distillers are hopeless romantics at heart. I’m not talking managers or owners nor all the Johnny Come Lately’s entering the business at the moment but about those true distillers who would pursue their craft regardless of law, tax, or consequence. We can wax poetic on any set of topics you might introduce into conversation regarding means and methodology regarding distillation. Pot Vs. Column, age Vs distillation protocol, yeast and bacteria, worm Vs. tube and shell, blending and vating. All of these topics are commonly covered in the forums of social media and in the media regarding each spirit. Some spirits focus on blending and stills such as Scotch and Rum, some focus on tradition and family like Bourbon, but few, short of brandy, ever talk about raw material, particularly in American Whiskey. That is changing now as more farmers begin work to revive and provide distillers with alternative grains or farmers just flat convert to distilling themselves, both at home and in the industry.
Long before distillation became my primary focus my interest was in maintaining and expanding my family farm. I put particular impetus on finding cultivars that fit my particular taste, productivity, and bio-adaptability needs and when I couldn’t find those I started learning the delicate art of plant breeding and selection for localized adaptation. I created many lines of seed and sold many types of seeds, plants, and livestock through my farm. Unfortunately farming and particularly plant breeding didn’t lead to a very economically sustainable livelihood but to this day remains a passion of mine and some of the crops I developed from this work and my general obsession with self-sustainability and preparedness led me down the path of focusing more deeply on distillation. This work also gave me insight into concepts regarding distillation of certain types of grains and crops that I do not believe is commonly available via the traditional routes of distilling education as it allowed me to see biodiversity to its fullest extent and to understand the bio-availability of compounds and how they may be extracted and recombined in a method that would lead to their availability as active components in a finished spirit.
An Early Generation of Amanda Palmer with far less segregating diversity. Lots of tropical and Mexican genetics segregating. Maybe circa 2008
Occasionally you will read about a few distilleries truly looking at and experimenting with the agrarian roots of distillation; Leopold Brothers is an excellent example and the corn experimentation at Buffalo Trace is a nice flourish in its own small way. Steve Beam of course at Limestone Branch has long sworn by his families favorite standby Boone County White dent corn (a Hoosier corn from Boone County Indiana, not Kentucky. Bred from the old dent standby Mammoth White) for his whiskies. Iron Root Republic in Texas gets all my respect for exploring the unique opportunities afforded to experimentation with numerous corn varieties from both North and South America. Unfortunately, however the experimentation amongst American Distillers, particularly of the Bourbon Variety, is not as of YET as deep as it should be and could be and I think there are a number of reasons for this.
One is obviously the economics of “playing” with alternative grains. Many of the old heirloom strains of wheat, barley, corn, and rye do not yield nearly as well as their modern counterparts and are susceptible to many diseases or are susceptible to molds and rots and a lot of modern farmers don’t want to “fool with” (their words not mine) these varieties as the economic incentive often doesn’t exist. In Kentucky (not a knock on big Bourbon mind you just the truth) the emphasis has always been that Bourbon is a commodity to be knocked out in mass and cheaply and that the variety of corn used has no effect on flavor. This thinking is entrenched in the Bourbon-Centric distiller’s circles unfortunately. The second reason is related to the first; “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.” And while this tenant is true just because it isn’t broke don’t mean it can’t be improved, particularly if that improvement can increase the economic state of your community, county, state, and country by empowering farmers to look at bio-diversity, environmental factors, and old school methodology, not to mention the educational spectrum regarding the true possibilities of agriculture that one can’t see by just riding a planter or running a combine. Custom farming for fun and profit!
It would make sense to me that Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee who all have very similar distilling backgrounds would find the study of early corn varieties for trial (and for improvement via traditional breeding, here is looking at you Purdue!) to be of paramount interest. After all the distilling interests in these states is based on very traditional methodology and storytelling as well as the ties between early settlers, their farming, and their need for an item of trade, hence the development of the completely agrarian centered Bourbon Whiskey. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be an area of research that the big companies nor the Universities are interested in and to the lay consumer it would seem that this is indeed because “corn is corn and everybody uses #2 Yellow Dent Commodity corn and that’s the way it’s always been.” You know, except that it’s not.
A good example of an unimproved variety of high cartenoid orange corn. Varieties and selections now exist that are much improved and show levels of coloration near that of Halloween Jack O Lanterns
So, what were early Kentucky and Indiana distillers using? Well, often they were using whatever they could get ahold of but what they were not using was yellow dent corn, at least not widely, nor were they using white dent corn. Those yellow and white kernelled dent corns did not come into vogue and heavy rotation in the agriculture industry until around the 1850’s and prior to their development from crosses of Texas Shoe peg to Eastern Flint the prevalent corn crops in the region were those grown by the very people who stewarded the seed and the development of this amazing plant from its earliest days, the Native Americans who inhabited the regions and whom received their stock via trades with tribes in Oaxaca Mexico as the corn diaspora moved north and south). Hybrid corn would not become a commodity until the 1920’s -1930’s and people had to grow what was local, regional, and well adapted to the norms of the climate and pests of the region. The recent revival of Jimmy Red Corn in the south as distillation feedstock is a prime example of a localized variety that would have been common in that area. In North-Central Kentucky and Southern Indiana varieties were dominated by semi flint or primitive dent ear types from crosses between Eastern and Southern corns brought here and outcrossed via open pollination to the local Native American types or were most often pure Native American varieties. Many varieties of Shawnee and Delaware sourced Maize still exist to this day and some are still very regional in their growth in home gardens and would be excellent sources for unique but regionally appropriate whiskey stocks.
Ohio Blue Clarage. Why midwest distillers insist on growing and using completely ill adapted South Western “Hopi” varieties that can’t stand up to the climate locally I will never know when beauties like this still exist and were definitely used for Whiskey/Bourbon in the 1800’s
There were likely as many corn varieties as there were farmers, and all of those corns were being passed around in the local exchange economy and since nearly every farmer was a distiller in the earliest days each distillers whiskey would have been highly variable based not only on all the standard criteria but also upon the type (flint, dent, flour) and color of corn they were growing. In Southern Ohio there are many native sourced varieties to this day of blue and white intermixed dent corn which certainly would have seen widespread use throughout the Ohio Valley as it is very productive, of course Bloody Butcher would have also have been well known (Blood Butcher is unfortunately, short of very unadapted to the Midwest Blue Corns originating in the South West, the most common current whiskey contender, though there are much better and more interesting lines out there, quit being lazy guys!) The opportunity for new types and races of Maize to be produced was ever present as corn is an open pollinated crop with both male and female flowers and corn pollen can travel up to two miles, this means that neighboring farmers were often enjoying the pollen drift from other farmers fields giving rise to hybrid vigor in populations as well as to new color possibilities as well as tastes!
Indigo Children. A blue Landrace of early 80 DTM corn I have been working to further develop. This is a true “flour” corn like the Hopi corns mentioned but is adapted very well to the Ohio Vallery.
The Shawnee and Delaware corns of Southern Indiana were typically flour types (very soft) or flint types (hard like popcorn) and were often magenta, red, blue, or even pink! These would have been seen commonly by the early settlers in the area and often times mills were set up near these already established agricultural fields. As a matter of fact here in Washington County at Becks Mill, the first mill in the county and subsequently home to multiple distilleries, this was the impetus (along with of course a strong running spring to turn the large water wheel) for the Beck family settling in the section they did as they found a prosperous Delaware village near the spring who had already cleared acres of land and placed it into corn production, seed of which you can be sure was theirs and was very genetically diverse and certainly not straight yellow or white dent corn. The Becks made a deal with these locals that in exchange for part of that corn crop they would subsequently grind what the village needed for their own use.
So why do these variables matter to the taste of whiskey? I’m about to get to that. You see, the starch type for one determines the yield quite obviously and the fact that these corns are well adapted to their place of origin and therefore grow with much lower inputs vs modern hybrids is another, but those stunning color arrays are not simply aesthetic, often they are symptomatic of different amino acids that each have their own unique flavors! Yes, this means that a red corn tastes different from a blue corn, tastes different from a yellow corn, tastes different from an orange corn, tasted different from…you get it! Now, not all of these components are always distillable in their current form, some are miscible in water, some in acidic environments (sour mash!), and some are only released with the addition of heat. All of these corns are very expressive as well of their current environment, think of Terroir, some color up better in certain soil conditions including stressful ones than they otherwise would in a soil that has been pampered. Each has its own ability to extract from the soil the minerals and constituents of its own life force but also the very taste of the earth itself meaning that if one variety is chosen and planted in two different soils you will develop two distinct flavor profiles. In practical distillation some will stand well on their own allowing for no other grains or very small percentages of flavoring grains to be used. All of this is to say that in my experience these aspects will hold up much better amongst flexible small distillers running simple pot stills. Part of the romance of a pot still is its inefficiency and its tendency to distill some amount of water into the finished product, water of course carries far more flavor than alcohol and this is why pot stills produce such heavy bodied spirits. Two corn colorations/amino acids that are miscible in water and would likely be of interest to distillers are those varieties with high levels of Anthocyanins such as Maize Morando and more northern adapted derivatives (Morado is incredibly long season Peruvian corn which will not mature in less than 170 days in its native form though many breeders have developed similar lines that are commercially available with shorter maturity such as Alan Kapuler, Munk Bergin, and Dave Christensen) The second type of corn and coloration that is miscible in water is bright orange/carotenoid rich corns. These are high in proto-vitamin A and distill extremely well. As of yet commercial sources for seed aren’t available but requests can be made of breeders such as Joseph Lofthouse and myself.
Maize Morado. A deep purple-black variety used to make Chicha in Peru. Incredibly long season and anthocyanin rich, attempts are underway to breed purple/black lines for the Mid-West.
If the distilling industry in general is interested in story telling as a sign of authernicity or of marketing and if small regional distilleries are after the chance to make their product stand out from the large commercial distillers it makes sense to me that they might want to revist some of the old varieties once used by the ancestors of which our traditions of distillation are based off of. Many of the varieties are alive and well and are widely available from commercial sources. These are seeds of living history and there is more than enough diversity within for every single distiller and distilling region to have and or to develop their own unique varieties. As you explore that diversity further you will find also that there are many varieties with no history of distillation until quite recently if at all and it is in those varieties that the future of corn based distillates can be secured for all true distillers and farmer distillers.
I spent nearly 10 years developing my own line of corn called Amanda Palmer (I have a tendency to name seed after songs, song writers, or musicians who inspire me) from various crosses of old heirlooms, commercial varieties pre-GMO, and from folk varieties via Oaxaca Mexico, South America, the Carribbean, Thailand, and Africa. In all there are over 150 parent varieties represented in this created Hoosier Landrace and the diversity and flavor is stunning. The breeding process saw years of inter-planting seed on the worst ground I had and selecting from the plants the very best ears that represented the collection I wanted to see with good brace roots, stalk strength, the ability to produce two good ears on one plant, tight husks, drought tolerance, color and more. This was the methodology of the old Farmer-Distillers who were maintaining and sometimes creating their own lines, of course they didn’t have access to the diversity we now do, but from their foundation we build our own house. From this collection of germplasm yet many corn varieties could be isolated and developed for distilleries country wide should any distillers be interested in them.