Heirloom Corn’s Flavor Premium, and More | Cape Law
Craft Distillers Reviving Heirloom Corn
Two Missouri distillers are taking the path less travelled in a quest to find unique corn varieties for making craft spirits. In speaking with DTN Progressive Farmer, Gary Hinegardener of Wood Hat Spirits explains that just like grape varieties influence the taste of wine, corn varieties influence the taste of distilled spirits. This led Hinegardener to begin looking at heirloom corn varieties such as Bloody Butcher, Hopi Blue, and Cateto Orange Flint. Hinegardener recently began collaborating with USDA researchers based at the University of Missouri in a project to evaluate old corn varieties, particularly varieties that were traditionally grown in Missouri, for their potential to enhance whisky flavors.
The owners of Pinckney Bend Distillery started experimenting with heirloom corn because they wanted to know what Missouri whiskey tasted like in the 19th century. They reasoned that distillers back in the day bought corn from local growers and the different varieties would have had an impact on the flavor profile. In contrast, almost 97% of the corn grown in the U.S. is yellow No.2 dent corn which is the corn used by all the big distillers.
Hinegardener believes that distillers should be looking at heirloom varieties and paying farmers more for the corn to get them interested in growing them. He also provided a compelling explanation for paying a premium – from one bushel of corn, he can produce about 15 fifths of whiskey. The whisky made from Bloody Butcher heirloom red corn sells for about $76 per fifth. That means even when paying $18 per bushel for the corn, each $76 fifth would only contain $1.20 of corn.
With prices for yellow No. 2 corn currently trading in the $6 – $7 range, there is an economic argument for producing heirloom varieties, at least in limited acreages. Commodity corn is akin to a race to the bottom, i.e., the lowest-cost producer “wins” as everyone sells to the same handful of buyers. On the other hand, distillers (and other craft food producers) are looking beyond cost and are willing to pay extra for flavor. A grower that is willing to establish a relationship with some of these discerning buyers (such as a craft distiller) can boost and diversify revenue streams with existing assets – not a bad idea at all! Read more about the efforts of these two distillers at Feast and DTN Progressive Farmer.