The Alchemy of the Farm-Distiller

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A section of the 15 Acre field of Amanda Palmer on the Doty family farm in Martin County Indiana.

There is no doubt that I truly love my job.  There is also no doubt that it was not an easy road to reach my goals.  I toiled for many years prior to becoming a legal distiller in the fields of sustainable agriculture and plant breeding and through much heart ache and nearly no financial reward I earned a treasure trove of valuable information from the plants, seeds, and animals I worked with.  All of that knowledge informs what I do now (and to a lesser extent what I was doing Illicitly then) in ways that are sometimes truly sublime.

While I have enjoyed distilling every product I have ever put my hand to there is no doubt that my time at Spirits Of French Lick has been far more spiritually productive for me than that which was spent at my previous “job”.  I was lucky enough this year to be able to provide seed of one of my many landrace breeding projects, Amanda Palmer dent corn, enough to plant 15 acres for use in production of a very special bourbon which will focus heavily on the notes provided by the corn itself.

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Amanda Palmer contains some truly interesting traits including those passed on to it by tropical and sub-tropical accessions of maize from the Caribean, South America, and Oaxaca Mexico, many of these stalks grew to be over fifteen feet tall.

This corn is very special to me in much more than a commodity sense.  I spent 10 years developing it from a cross that started with a University of Kentucky Tuxpeno line sent to me by a friend.  The original corn was the work of a “Corn Doctor” as they were once called in a time where the breeding of Open Pollinated crops was still looked at as a highly viable option. From there I crossed every useful to me diaspora of corn I could get my hands on into the population.  Seed from every diaspora of corn (from the time it left Mexico until it got where it was going and was further developed and selected by local farmers to fit the conditions of the agriculture in that area) that I could track down was folded into the population and became part of the gene pool, what is known as an Open Pollinated Synthetic population began to form and from it I selected useful attributes such as drought tolerance (silk and tasle on the same day), Stalk Strength (Oval stalks are stronger than round ones), Standability (large “brace” roots which form a foot or more above the ground and stop the corn from toppling over, tight husks (which prevent animal and insect damage), the ability to germinate in cold wet soils (to beat the local GMO farmers to maturity so as not to have to worry about cross pollination), two ears per stalk (two small ears always yield more grain that one large ear), color (a wide range of variation as each color has it’s own distinct flavor and from this population new varieties can be selected and emerge), type (a dent/flint population), low fertility production, and most importantly flavor.

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This is an image from inside the bulk grain bin on the farm.  Amanda Palmer produced right at 150 bushels of grain per acre on what we Hoosiers call “poor hill ground”

I had good years with this corn and terrible years and at one point I was down to literally the last handful of seed I could salvage from predatory animals such as deer and raccoons.  I won’t lie, I cried, a few times, I bled for the crop too, many times cutting my hands deep on the shanks of the husk.  I spent countless hours hand planting and hand harvesting, husking, and shelling.  I grew 9 acres one year, tended it, harvested it, shelled it, and prepared it (for various home projects, take that how you will) myself.  I know this corn.  I am this corn.

Unfortunately none of that hard work meant anything to anyone but a select few small scale growers, my local historic grist mill and chef, and myself.  I tried to get local growers to give it a go and even the Amish.  None were interested, they saw no market.  As the micro distilling movement began to grow I knew this would be my opporotunity, unfortunately my first employer could not see a place for a grain distillate that was not tied to some fucking hipster beer company.  His loss.  The owner of Spirits of French Lick, Mr. John Doty on the other hand was more than open to giving this grain a shot and for that I thank him.  Of course he too is a farmer at heart and likely that familiarity had something to do with his decision to pursue the project.

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A Few of the latest season ears of corn to be harvested for seed drying at the distillery.

From this Amanda Palmer (I tend to name seed strains after musicians and songs I appreciate, so ignoring the fact that I don’t like her politics, I obviously have an affection for her musical aptitude) we will produce about 120 barrels of bourbon.  80% corn, 10% rye, and 10% Marris Otter malt.  This will become a yearly production as well, and I am hopeful we at Spirits Of French Lick will release it as a four year old bonded Bourbon.

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Me, right where I am supposed to be.  In the midst of seed ear selection.

This corn is a true representation of the Alchemy which I so love.  It was created as and remains and open source seed variety meaning there is no ownership and in coming years I hope to release new selections from the population to my distilling friends the world over. This is what it means to be a farmer-distiller, a practical distiller, and an explorer of all things sublime.

 

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