Years of research and a dedicated group of historians have helped to lead us to a true field-to-glass whiskey made from rare, historically important heirloom-corn varieties. We released our first one in 2016—using Hickory Cane dent corn—and we’ve continued to release a different one each year. In the years to come, we intend to find our favorites and help reclaim biodiversity in distilling.
Why Heirloom Corn?
If you want to know what whiskey tasted like before Prohibition, you also have to talk about the corn that was grown back then—and by talk about it, I mean learn every intimate detail about corn. We did that, and we are proud to be part of a small group of distillers using heirloom corn, and thus part of a wider movement to reintroduce biodiversity to distilling.
The open-pollinated corn varieties that our ancestors used to make whiskey are disappearing—and when they’re gone, they’ll be gone forever. At Pinckney Bend, we produce “field-to-glass” whiskey using rare, hard-to-find heirloom varieties of corn. The varieties we select were once associated, historically, with making whiskey. To the degree possible, we also choose types that were grown in our region before the introduction of hybrids in the 1930s.
But What Is Heirloom Corn?
There is no established date for when a corn variety becomes “heirloom.” Some varieties, such as blue corn, have been grown and used by Native Americans for centuries. Others were developed as late as the early 20th century, even if they soon fell by the wayside.
Heirloom varieties all have three things in common. They are:
- no longer grown on a commercial scale.
- genetically quite different from today’s hybrid and GMO corns.
Heirloom corn varieties are often—but not always—associated with specific geographic areas. They also are associated with distinct characteristics; they tend to look and taste different from one another.
How Are They Different?
Our whiskey-making process uses 100 percent corn, and we employ the same mashing, triple distillation, and barrel-aging recipe for every heirloom. We use “Cindy,” our 1,200-liter pot still, to bring out the real character of the corn, and that consistency allows us to assess the flavor and character of each final whiskey. We feel that by cataloging these characteristics, we’ll ultimately be able to create better whiskey, even as we raise awareness of these classic species.
So, how do heirloom varieties differ from your standard, Roundup Ready dent corn? Aside from the flavor—and we’ll get to that—these heirloom varieties require virtually no additional yeast nutrients. The corn has all the requirements needed for a complete fermentation. Standard corn, on the other hand, requires added nutrients that include nitrogen and amino acids.
All this does come at a cost. Heirlooms’ yield at harvest is much lower than that of modern varieties—as much as 50 percent lower. That means a farmer might harvest as little as 40 bushels per acre. These varieties also tend to grow tall—as high as 14 feet, or well over four meters. Add to that the trait that most stalks produce only one ear, and you can see why people quickly began using modern hybrids for animal feed and later, for whiskey.
On the left, “Cindy,” Pinckney Bend’s 1,200-liter pot still; on the right, farmer John Berger shows off his tall-growing heirloom corn. Photos courtesy Pinckney Bend Distillery.
A Few Heirlooms, Described
Here are some examples and descriptions of these varieties, as well as what they have brought to the character of our own whiskeys.
Boone County White
One of the most prominent varieties grown in Missouri in the past century, Boone County White was especially popular with farmers working the rich bottom ground along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Today, this old favorite is enjoying a resurgence among heirloom-corn enthusiasts. Known for its high yields and versatility, this variety is just as tasty if eaten fresh or left to dry.
Whiskey Tasting Notes: With its deep copper color and tobacco aroma, this chameleon spirit has a lot of nuance when enjoyed over time. A spicy front reminds you of rye whiskeys, while the sweet-oak finish lightly lingers. Often a favorite of our rye drinkers, this 100 percent corn spirit is both earthy and fruity.
Settlers along the southern colonial frontier grew Pencil Cob, named for its shoe-peg kernels and unique, pencil-thin cob. This old field-corn variety was popular with both farmers and distillers. Its kernels are traditionally ground for cornbread, while farmers used its stalks to support climbing bean vines.
Whiskey Tasting Notes: A golden-chestnut hue sets the tone for this easy-sipping spirit. With a floral-oak nose, this corn gives off hints of both cherry and cedar. From a soft front to a spicy-sweet middle, the soft finish lingers with hints of oaked maple syrup.
Bloody Butcher is an heirloom variety thought to have been passed from Native Americans to settlers in Virginia in the 1840s. It has a rich red color, and when ground, the cornmeal is spotted with red flecks, like a butcher’s apron—hence the name.
More than a century ago, people knew Bloody Butcher corn as a good all-around variety for roasting, flour, meal, and livestock feed. It was also popular with folks who produced illicit whiskey in the Missouri Ozarks. Today, this heirloom variety is growing in popularity among craft distillers.
Whiskey Tasting Notes: This three-year expression has a golden honey color and a delightful new-baseball-glove smell. The taste begins with a marmalade sweetness, but it finishes with a deceptively long yet soft back. Everything about this whiskey evokes the sensations of a cedar-log cabin.
In 1840, Tennessee was the leading corn-producing state in the Union, and much of the corn grown was Red Cob, generically known as “Indian corn.” Red Cob began appearing in seed catalogs before 1900, and it was popular throughout the Ozarks region. Though it is a soft, white dent corn, it has a red germ that gives it a unique color and aroma. It was a superior grain for flour, grits, and—of course—whiskey.
Whiskey Tasting Notes: A golden-auburn color sets the tone for this distinct spirit. A malty-sweet aroma combines with a savory, nutty front. This whiskey has many nuanced layers on the finish, with faint hints of butterscotch. The same flavor that made it a natural choice for grits also makes it a favored variety for whiskey.
This variety of white dent corn got its name before 1875. While many farmers grew it in the Appalachians, Native Americans in northern Florida had cultivated it much earlier. Over time, Hickory Cane became popular in the South and the Ozarks, where it was also known for making excellent whiskey.
Whiskey Tasting Notes: With a dark burnished color, this whiskey has a heavy aroma of molasses with hints of clove. It has a nutty sweetness, but the flavor doesn’t linger, leaving a very clean finish. With a mid-tongue taste reminiscent of a toasted walnut, this release showcased why Hickory Cane was prized for grits, roasted corn, and whiskey.