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How Two Missouri Distillers Have Resurrected Historic Varieties of Native Corn

Wood Hat Spirits and Pinckney Bend Distillery are using heirloom corn to make exceptional American whiskeys

  • 8 min to read

The wood-fired tank at Wood Hat Spirits in New Florence, Missouri, is hot – very hot. Specifically, 400ºF. Owner Gary Hinegardner throws about seven buckets of Missouri oak barrel-stave scraps into the tank – it looks like an oversized smoker – each day he’s distilling. The fire heats a paraffin-based food-grade oil; Hinegardner chose it specifically because it doesn’t boil until it hits 625°F. The oil then pumps through coils and heats Wood Hat’s 850-gallon still. Hinegardner likens the setup to the water that pumps through a car engine and radiator.

Today he’s distilling Montgomery County, a bourbon that follows a similar grain bill to leading commercial bourbons, with a bill of 65 percent corn to 35 percent wheat. It’s the only whiskey he makes with yellow No. 2 corn, “the only thing everybody grows out here in Montgomery County,” he says.

Yellow No. 2 is also known as dent corn. You would recognize it easily; it’s used to make animal feed, ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, tortillas, taco shells and even plastic. It was first developed in 1846 by northern Illinois farmer James L. Reid, who won a prize for the variety at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. (The corn is a hybrid between flint corn and a variety called Gordon Hopkins.)

Hybridization would become increasingly popular in the decades after Reid won his medal, as farmers were unable to resist the improved yields. In 1933, just 1 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. were hybrid varieties. By 1943, that number jumped to 78 percent.

Genetically modified (or GMO) corn was first commercialized in 1996 by Monsanto. Scientists pulled one or more proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, a biological pesticide, and added it to corn. This reduced or eliminated the need for cornfields to be sprayed with pesticides, and again increased corn yields for farmers.

Today, 96.83 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is yellow No. 2, and the big four American distilleries – Jim Beam, Four Roses, Jack Daniels and Maker’s Mark – all use that same corn.

“In the distilling industry, [it’s like] we’re still stuck with Concord grapes; what would happen if the whole wine industry in this United States [only] used Concord grapes?,” Hinegardner says. “And that’s what happens in distilling – they all use yellow No. 2, ‘cause that’s what’s there. If you [want to] use a different corn, you gotta grow it.”

Ralph Haynes first began experimenting with heirloom corn – that is, non-hybridized, open-pollinated varieties – because he wanted to know what Missouri whiskey tasted like in the 19th century.

As co-owner and director of sales and marketing at Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven, Missouri, he’s finely attuned to the history of the area. Legend has it that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stopped near Washington, Missouri, and bought a bottle of whiskey in 1806.

“By late afternoon, they stopped at a settlement close to Saint Johns Creek and bought their first whiskey since leaving [on] the Voyage of Discovery,” Haynes says. “They complained bitterly about the price – $8 for two gallons – but no one complained about the quality.”

But what would that whiskey have tasted like? Yellow No. 2 corn hadn’t yet been created in 1806, so Haynes set out to find what corn was growing in Franklin County prior to the 1930s. The cobs and names are much more colorful than yellow No. 2: Wapsie Valley, Blue Hopi, Tennessee Red Cob, Boone County White, Ohio Blue Clarage, Bloody Butcher Red. Pinckney Bend currently has about 13 varieties of corn and corn whiskeys in various stages of development – propagating, growing, aging.

“I started out focusing on corns that were grown in the Ozarks,” Haynes says. “I found an article by an agriculture anthropologist named Brian C. Campbell. He mentioned some varieties that got me started – Tennessee Red Cob was one, Pencil Cob was one, Hickory Cane (sometimes called Hickory King) – was another.

I bought all the seed I could find in lots over five pounds, wherever it was advertised [in the country]. I ended up with about 80 pounds of Pencil Cob.”

Pinckney Bend was able to start growing that variety immediately, because Haynes found enough seed; he had to grow a few rows of Tennessee Red Cob and Hickory Cane himself, though, to have the seeds to plant enough corn the next year so he could make a batch of whiskey. He also finds inspiration from a Missouri vertical yield study from 1906 through 1916 – he says it’s his current “bible” – which lists 50 varieties of corn found in the state.

“I began finding that there were a lot of old varieties like Old Possum Special [also known as Possum Walk Special] that were locally named and I just couldn’t locate,” Haynes says. “I began searching and reasoning that there were distilleries all over the place [in Missouri], and they bought corn from local people. There are other variables [in whiskey] like water, rain quality, distillation technology, the distillers’ skill, barrel – but if you use the same approach across all the whiskeys you’re making, you can get a handle on how corn variety impacts flavor profile.”

At Wood Hat, Hinegardner takes what he likes to call a “red, white and blue approach.” He, in collaboration with local farmers, grows Blue Hopi, Bloody Butcher and three different varieties of local heirloom white corn; his flagship whiskey, All-American Corn Whiskey, is a blend of all six. He was already familiar with blue corn and its smooth flavor, so that became his jumping-off point.

“[Blue Hopi corn has] a full body to it, but it’s short,” he says, meaning you don’t taste it in the middle or back of your palate. “It’s kind of like eating an egg white when you haven’t gotten to the yolk yet. It’s nice, but it’s not very exciting.”

Hinegardner started looking into other heirloom corns, and found Bloody Butcher red, which is characterized by a peppery spice that reminds him of rye. During his first year of growing, in 2012, Hinegardner planted 3 acres of blue; by 2016 he had 15 aces of blue, 10 acres of red and 2½ acres of white, just short of 30 acres.

“[Bloody Butcher corn] is just really flavorful. When you have a red corn distillate, it fills your mouth,” he says. “Blue [and red] corn are a good combination, because it’s smooth, it’s nice [at first], and the red corn comes in there with extra spice, more pepper – just fills out the palate. And both of ‘em are real smooth on the finish.”

Wood Hat, like Pinckney Bend, treats each of its whiskeys the same – distilling them under the same conditions and aging them for the same amount of time – to better illustrate the flavor differences in the corn varieties. Hinegardner ages whiskey for about 16 months, and mostly in 15-gallon barrels, which are much smaller than the 53-gallon industry standard. The smaller barrels allow Hinegardner to age whiskey in a shorter amount of time. (In addition to his 15-gallon barrels, Hinegardner also uses 20- and 53-gallon sizes, but most of his spirits are aged in the small 15-gallon barrels.)

Hinegardner stores his barrels in shipping containers, which accentuate the variable temperatures throughout the year and accelerates the aging process.

“If you go to Scotland, nothing happens. It’s the same temperature all day, all week. It takes 10 to 12 years to make whiskey,” Hinegardner explains. “This room will get hot and cold every day, and that’s what makes whiskey. When the barometric pressure changes, it changes the pressure in the barrel and pushes the alcohol into the wood, and it comes back out [as the pressure changes again].”

Pinckney Bend keeps its barrels in a temperature-controlled aging room, but uses the same basic principles to age its whiskey. It also has the benefit of what Haynes and co-owner and master distiller Tom Anderson like to call “a seismic event every 40 minutes or so”: trains on the nearby Missouri Pacific Railroad rattle everything, shaking up the whiskey and giving it more nuance as it ages. (Such movement and vibration causes agitation and interaction between the whiskey and wood.)

“I really didn’t expect [the whiskeys] to be as different as they are,” Anderson admits. “But look at apples: They look different and they taste different. Why wouldn’t corn be the same way?

“Basically four [companies] make all the whiskey around [the U.S.], and they’re doing it in a big way. I’ll never talk down Kentucky bourbon; it’s a classic American product. But there are a lot of other things we can learn. If not, it’ll be gone. Ralph found some of these varieties in seed banks and repositories. I think genetic diversity is really the thing that is most concerning. And in the end, people aren’t looking at these [corn] varieties for whiskey, and they should be.”

Of course, part of the reason more craft distilleries don’t use heirloom corn is that it’s very difficult. First, you have to find the seeds. Hinegardner bought his first blue-corn seed for $1,000 a bushel; yellow No. 2 currently goes for $3.49 per bushel. And more often than not, you’re going to have to grow and propagate it yourself. You also have to make sure it’s not contaminated by any cross pollination; both Haynes and Hinegardner hand-pick the ears of corn they want to plant and propagate.

“We’re really working toward a sense of terroir,” Haynes says, using a term most often applied to wine, “where the whiskey – the corn, in most cases, the barrel and the wood from which the barrel is made are all from a 60-mile radius. We’re that way on most of our whiskey products; it just took time to get there, because it’s expensive and we kind of bootstrapped this up from a pretty small thing. But we’re getting there.”

At Pinckney Bend, the whiskey made with Wapsie Valley – an heirloom variety that can be either dark red or dark yellow – has been its most popular, but there’s only one bottle left at the moment, and it’s part of Haynes’ private stash. So this year, all of the distillery’s unaged corn whiskeys were made with pipe corn sourced from Missouri Meerschaum Co., which makes corn-cob pipes nearby in Washington, Missouri (it’s also the world’s oldest and largest corn-cob pipe producer).

“This is the general flavor profile of whiskey as it comes off the still and is brought to drinking strength, which in this case is 83 proof,” Haynes says, sniffing a small glass of the pipe corn American Corn Whiskey. “It’s corn on the nose, corn on the palate.”

Anderson describes his favorite, the Wapsie Valley, as bourbon-esque (“It batted for older than it was,” Haynes says), while the Hickory Cane had a lighter body, more similar to Canadian whiskey.

“That’s one of the fun parts of pouring this for people – they don’t know what to expect,” Haynes laughs. “They’re used to tasting whiskey by brand and associating taste with a brand as opposed to a particular corn variety. It still astonishes me when I taste them side by side.”

Hinegardner isn’t surprised that the Big Four haven’t gotten into heirloom corn; there’s no way these distilleries could get enough blue corn, for instance, to produce on that kind of a scale.

But as craft distillers creep in on the market share, slowly but surely, he expects them to take notice. Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, has committed to making a new bourbon from a different variety of heirloom corn each year; the company planted 18 acres of Boone County White corn in 2015 and harvested and distilled the bourbon in 2016. The small-batch estate bourbon is currently aging in barrels. Diageo, the British company that owns Tanqueray, Captain Morgan, Smirnoff, Guinness and Crown Royal, among others, has begun investing in small distilleries, as well.

“[When I first started], people thought, ‘Oh no, Gary,’” he says. “One of my longtime friends in the industry said, ‘Don’t do it, Gary. That’s a mistake. The big boys are gonna eat your lunch.’ And they’re trying right now, they’re trying real hard.”

Haynes admits that at one point, he thought about positioning Pinckney Bend to attract the attention of Diageo, but he, Anderson and their third partner, Jerry Meyer, ultimately decided against it.

“We’re committed to what we’re doing; we don’t want someone else to determine the future of our brand,” Haynes says. “And each of us has a different objective, but we all generally agree that we’re having fun doing this, and we’re doing things that are important.”

Hinegardner worries about being priced out of business, but he thinks (and hopes) that regardless of price, there is still a market out there for interesting, unique, high-end and high-quality whiskey – not to mention one he promises won’t give you a hangover.

“America is ahead of the world in craft distilling, and Missouri distilleries have won our share of national and international awards, too,” Hinegardner says. “We have people from all over the world come to the American Distilling Institute conference, but it’s not like in the United States. We’re still the innovators. I think that’s just part of being American; we’re basically renegades anyway. We like options, and change, and we’re not afraid to step out there. Americans do that sort of thing.”

For both Haynes and Anderson, reviving heirloom corn and exploring its history is one of the most rewarding things about their work.

“The world isn’t GMO. It came from somewhere. It has a history, it has a story and it has a flavor,” Haynes says. “And in a world where things are being homogenized, I like to think that we can still celebrate the difference.”

Pinckney Bend Distillery, 1101 Miller St., New Haven, Missouri, 573.237.5559, pinckneybend.com

Wood Hat Spirits, 489 Booneslick Road, New Florence, Missouri, 573.835.1000, woodhatspirits.com

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