Bill Thomas and I recently had some Bourbon made at Kentucky Artisan Distillery with Hickory Cane white corn, an heirloom variety raised by my grandfather as far back as the 1930s. I chose that corn because everyone at his funeral said he made the best moonshine in Barren County. Now I take that with a grain of salt since you expect praise of the dead at a funeral, however, It must have been pretty good moonshine. He never raised anything other than Hickory Cane corn and I always wondered how good it would be in a Bourbon. It seems to be pretty good.
Other distillers are using heirloom corns in their Bourbon. Bloody Butcher is a deep reddish black variety used by a couple of small distilleries. Jeptha Creed distillery is using Bloody Butcher corn they raise on the farm in Shelby County. Alan Bishop at Spirits of French Lick Distillery in Indiana also uses some heirloom varieties of corn he raises on his place in Indiana. Ted Huber is also raising some heirloom varieties of corn to use in his distillery. Balcones Distillery in Texas has been making a Bourbon with an heirloom variety of blue corn for years and it is pretty good whiskey. All of this made me start to think that there are other varieties of heirloom corn out there, so what are they and would they make good Bourbon.
I grabbed one of Rosemary’s heirloom seed catalogs from Baker Creek Seeds and started looking. They sell 34 varieties of heirloom seed corn. A few of them are popcorn so we can probably leave them out of the discussion. There are many different colors of corn that range from white, to yellow, to orange, to red, to green, to blue, and to black. A few varieties are multicolored. Some are classified as sweet corn. Others are allowed to mature fully and dry on the stalk to make corn meal. There are lots of heirloom varieties available to choose from, so how do you pick a variety?
Seth Dettling from Big Escambia Distillery in Southern Alabama chose his corn because he thought it made the best cornbread he ever ate. Alan Bishop from Spirits of French Lick Distillery, likes to make grits to judge the quality of corn to use in distillation. That does sound like a good place to start. If it tastes good in bread, hopefully that will carry over in fermentation. I would think the sweet corn varieties would have a higher sugar content and produce a higher yield in fermentation. That could be another place to start. Another reason to choose an heirloom variety might be because it was a popular variety in your region a hundred years ago and that was what the local distillers used in their whiskey. Joyce Nethery at Jeptha Creed believes in her Bloody Butcher because the deer will pass up other corn varieties to eat the Bloody Butcher. That is as good a reason to consider it in your mash as any.
Heirloom corn varieties are bound to give unique flavors to a mash. Alan Bishop explains that the different colors of the corn give different amino acids which result in different flavor components. The use of heirloom corn can give a small distillery a distinction to their whiskey to set it apart from the many others bourbons on the shelf. It will cost more as heirloom varieties of corn cost more to grow. Higher seed prices, not as large a yield and it seems the deer love it making the yield even less. It will also place limits on production as it can be difficult to get and expensive. A small distillery will have less of a problem with the production limits and more of a problem with the expense. I would not let that stand in the way of trying heirloom corn in your whiskey. A distillery can create a brand with the variety that is more limited release and still produce whiskey with the less expensive and more common yellow dent corn used in most distilleries today. Combining an heirloom corn with the standard corn could be a way to handle expenses.
The Bourbon market is a tough market and the whiskey purchased by the consumer needs to stand out. Bourbon regulations are tight but there are ways to make your own unique whiskey. Using even a small portion of heirloom corn could be the difference in the whiskey made to set it apart.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller