Making Spirits with Uncommon Grain Varieties

Meet some of the distillers who are building unique grain bills for their spirits through research, farmer relationships, and environmentally mindful production.

Hollie Stephens Mar 22, 2024 - 12 min read

Making Spirits with Uncommon Grain Varieties Primary Image

Ann Marshall harvesting Jimmy Red corn. Courtesy High Wire Distilling. Photo: Leigh-Ann Beverley.

Mike Swanson is in the unusual position of being both a distiller and a farmer.

As cofounder of Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minnesota—just 35 miles south of the Canadian border—Swanson set out to investigate a matter that interested him: the impact of the rye variety on whiskey.

“I thought rye was rye, like everybody tells you, and it doesn’t really matter,” he says. But then a phone call from a farmer in Maine sparked his curiosity. The farmer was keen to get hold of the AC Hazlet rye variety after hearing about its rich vanilla note, and that led Swanson to start digging into rye flavor profiles.

AC Hazlet rye. Courtesy Far North Spirits.

After he talked to a small-grain specialist at the University of Minnesota, it seemed to him that relatively little research of that kind had been done. The timing was fortunate, however, since the university was about to resume rye trails for agronomic characteristics. Swanson put together a proposal and applied for a crop research grant, which he says was a straightforward process. Then, over the course of three years, he grew 15 different varieties of rye.


One takeaway from the study was an overall difference between hybrid rye and open-pollinated rye. “So much of the rye that is now used in distilling is going to be a hybrid,” Swanson says. It yields better, so it’s more profitable for farmers, but Swanson has found that open-pollinated rye varieties have “a much broader spectrum of flavor.”

However, there is more to these other varieties than a wider range of flavors. They also represent a wider range of crop diversity, and certain types are more suitable for particular regions and climates—and, thus, better for the soil and the environment—than widely grown commodity grains. As the climate emergency develops, agricultural diversity will be critical in controlling its impact, and distillers are well-placed to play a role.

By encouraging research, providing a steady customer base to small farms, and experimenting with heirloom or lesser-used grains, craft distillers can be part of a worthwhile—yet challenging—movement to bring more diverse grains into their spirits.

For Swanson, having his own land also made this project a little simpler. If he were contracting with a farmer, “it would add a layer of complexity,” he says, but it would still be doable.

What’s next? Swanson says he’d be interested in identifying differences in the same variety grown on different Minnesota farms. “I know another farmer-distiller in the very opposite corner of the state, with as different a climate and soil type as you can get within the state.”


Beyond that, he says he’d be keen to do a multistate study. Demonstrating and celebrating regional styles and helping them develop, Swanson says, “is the best thing that we can contribute to the industry as craft distillers.”

Worth the Hassle

“There were some varieties that were difficult performers out in the field,” Swanson says. In some cases, there were also challenges in the distillery.

“In particular, Oklon, which is an Oklahoma variety, was very sticky and required some TLC in the cooker and the ferment.” Swanson wasn’t enamored with this variety right off the still—after aging, however, it became something special. “I was getting flavor notes and aromas that were reminding me of a Speyside single malt,” he says.

Spooner was another variety that was hard to work with, Swanson says—but again, as with Oklon, worth the trouble. “After aging, the flavor was incredible.” He says these are grains that he’ll grow again, despite them being a challenge and receiving low processing scores.

The “single biggest surprise,” Swanson says, was discovering the differences in the spirits after aging. He racked the white spirits into barrels that were coopered on the same day at the same cooperage during the same shift, and they sat next to each other on the same rack for 18 months. His hypothesis was that because barrels contribute tremendous flavor, the aging process would muddle some of the subtle differences he’d observed in the white distillates.


Instead, he was shocked to find that the differences were amplified. “The differences in the aged whiskey [were] much more distinct and dramatic,” he says.

Pursuing the Perfect Grain with Patience and Purpose

Ann Marshall, cofounder of High Wire Distilling in Charleston, South Carolina, says it can take time to identify an ideal grain. “Every distillery in every state should be looking around,” she says, “asking themselves, ‘What was grown here before? Is it still around? Is it viable to scale?’”

As Marshall planned High Wire’s whiskey program, she consulted with Dave Pickerell, the longtime Maker’s Mark master distiller who is often regarded as a “Johnny Appleseed” for the expertise he shared with dozens of distilleries across the country. She decided that finding a niche path in whiskey-making would be a big part of their success. She reached out through contacts in the Southern Foodways Alliance to get an introduction to Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, which grows and mills heirloom grains. It was Roberts who introduced the High Wire team to Jimmy Red corn. This gangly, tall-growing corn with deep red kernels was attracting interest after dwindling and almost disappearing—at one point, only two cobs of it were left.

Jimmy Red corn. Courtesy High Wire Distilling. Photo: Leigh-Ann Beverley.

The next step was sourcing enough of it—no mean feat, when a thousand pounds of corn go in a batch. High Wire underwrote a grant with Clemson University, which supported growing and testing Jimmy Red across two and a half acres; Roberts provided the seed.

High Wire’s Jimmy Red Straight Bourbon Whiskey has a baking-spice note and a bit of creaminess with a full mouthfeel, helping to balance the ethanol heat. Over time, the distillery has considered adding other grains, and some barrels include wheat. However, Marshall finds that this tends to thin out Jimmy Red, and she wants to stick to a single-grain mash bill.


Regardless, some tasters detect notes normally expected from wheat and rye when tasting the 100 percent Jimmy Red corn bourbon. “It’s throwing a complexity of flavor and a range of flavor that most people … can’t achieve without multiple types of grains,” Marshall says.

Trial and Error with Farmer Relationships

There have been plenty of learning curves for High Wire over the past decade.

After maxing out with 14 acres at Clemson, the distillery began to work with another farmer, but it wasn’t a great fit. “The majority of the agriculture they had grown to date was grown to support their hunting activities,” Marshall says. High Wire decided that there were too many animals on the property that could potentially damage the corn crop—plus, the irrigation didn’t quite match what Jimmy Red needed.

Coming from a family of farmers herself, Marshall saw that the distillery needed to find a farm with center-pivot irrigation. “That was a big improvement for us,” she says. In 2020, the distillery secured contracts with several more growers who had the ideal irrigation, cleaning, and storage capabilities.

Plus, the distillery now has enough years under its belt with some farmers to help them get crop insurance. “That has added a little bit of risk abatement,” Marshall says. The perseverance has paid off: Last year’s was the biggest crop to date, with 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kilos) of Jimmy Red harvested, despite some damage from a hurricane.


“It’s humbling, it’s exciting,” Marshall says. “I wouldn’t trade a minute for any of the time that we’ve spent.”

Helping Farmers to Grow with Intent

Nels Wroe, founder of Dry Land Distillers in Longmont, Colorado, first became aware of Antero wheat through Troubadour Maltings in nearby Fort Collins. The maltsters introduced them to Arnusch Farms, about 45 miles to the east.

“It was an immediate connection,” Wroe says of meeting the growers for the first time and of deciding that the farm’s philosophy and approach aligned closely with his own.

Breeders at Colorado State University developed Antero. It grows well in the Front Range, but Wroe says that it hasn’t succeeded as a food option because of its lower protein structure. However, he saw its potential, and he liked the fact that it’s well-suited to growing in Colorado.

The problem that growers have, Wroe says, is that they need a reason to grow with intent. He’s adamant that distillers can be an important part of the solution. “We’re working to do more and more of that,” he says.


Dry Land also partners with a farm in the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado, which is prone to arid, dusty conditions. Wroe met a grower there who was using rye as a cover crop—for the sake of the soil, not necessarily to be harvested. The farm approached Dry Land about converting it to whiskey. “The growers saw the problem and said, ‘We can’t solve this just by growing stuff and hope that it sells. We have to go further [and] get the commitments of the food chain.’”

Collaborations like those, Wroe thinks, could be a part of the future of agriculture in Colorado. “We have to start doing a better job as an integrative food system,” he says.

There ought to be customers for such spirits, too. Wroe sees many farm-to-table restaurants that focus on sustainable, local produce, yet often they don’t pay as much attention to what’s on the bar.

Wroe says he wants to celebrate diversity and variations in grains—and for him, that means straightforward grain bills where the unique notes can shine. He created Dry Land’s Colorado Antero Wheat Whiskey from 100 percent Antero to better highlight its subtle flavors.

“I want to show people: Here is what a high-quality, appropriate-to-place grain tastes like,” he says. He doesn’t blend barrels or batches, either. Even in an unusually dry year, when the crops were stressed and yields were down, there were nice surprises: Some of the better barrels of the Antero Wheat Whiskey came from that year.

“We want to celebrate the differences that you can see and taste, from year to year and from crop to crop.”

Hollie Stephens is an award-winning journalist based in New Mexico and originally from the United Kingdom. Her work has been published in Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, Brewer and Distiller International Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and many other publications.