Rye was almost certainly the first grain to see the inside of an American-made liquor bottle. But it would be corn (or maize, more accurately) that would come to define American whiskey.
Despite being the dominant grain in bourbon mash bills—at least 51 percent, by regulation—few expressions are made with more than 80 percent corn. But corn whiskeys (as they’re often known once the mash bill tips past 80 percent) do exist, and as producers continuously strive for new ways to differentiate within the crowded craft whiskey market, these oddball examples offer a glimpse into the state of modern spirits. Whereas process, packaging and marketing were once the primary factors setting one bottle apart from another, raw ingredients—and a producer’s willingness to let them shine in the final product—are more important than ever.
Corn whiskey is, of course, hardly new. Mellow Corn, that easy-drinking bottling from Heaven Hill Distillery, was first produced in 1945 and became a cult bartender favorite about 10 years back, thanks in part to its lurid yellow packaging that made it an ironic shot of choice in dive bars the world over.
But corn whiskey received the craft treatment as early as 2003, when New York’s first legal distillery since Prohibition, Hudson Whiskey, released Baby Bourbon, made with 100 percent local corn and matured in small-format barrels. It was an instant hit. Since being taken over by multinational William Grant and Sons in 2017, Baby Bourbon has been rechristened Bright Lights, Big Bourbon and the mash bill has dropped to 95 percent corn. It may be a stretch to still call it “craft,” but nonetheless, it paved the way for many craft whiskeys to follow.
When Texas’ Balcones released its Baby Blue whiskey in 2008, for example, the distillery took the logical next step by turning to heirloom grains, namely roasted blue corn, in what would become a milestone bottle for the corn whiskey movement, and for the use of heirloom grains for whiskey in general. Others have followed suit. New Southern Revival Straight Bourbon Whiskey, from South Carolina’s High Wire Distilling Co., is made with 100 percent Jimmy Red corn, a variety historically grown on James Island and known to be a favorite of South Carolina moonshiners. The cultivar was nearly extinct before being revived in the late 2000s by a coalition of farmers, academics and chefs, including Sean Brock, a champion of threatened Southern heirloom ingredients.
“We use 100 percent Jimmy Red corn for our whiskey because it has so many flavorful layers, we just didn’t feel like wheat or rye was necessary,” explains High Wire co-founder Scott Blackwell. “It has a ton of starch, which tends to translate to a soft graham texture and flavor, and also contains cinnamic acid, which ends up translating into baking spice flavors.” Now grown in partnership with Clemson University, the Jimmy Red corn used by High Wire lends a signature profile that they describe as “nutty, sweet and mineral, with an extremely high oil content that provides an unusually creamy mouthfeel.”
Reservoir Distillery in Richmond, Virginia, shares High Wire’s approach to letting grains speak for themselves. Each of their rye, wheat and corn whiskeys are made with 100 percent of their base grain, uncut and unadulterated. “We believe there is power in provenance,” says Shelley Sackier, director of distillery education for Reservoir. “By choosing to make our bourbon from 100 percent corn, we give our customers an opportunity to discover what that pure grain has to offer.”
Even outside of the United States, corn whiskeys are a burgeoning category. Mexico has at least two brands dedicated to corn whiskey—Abasolo and Sierra Norte—which is perhaps unsurprising, as corn was first domesticated by Indigenous people around 9,000 years ago in what is now Mexico.
As far away as Australia, a country with its own booming craft whiskey scene, corn whiskey is part of the growing grain-to-glass trend. Western Australia’s Whipper Snapper Distillery, for example, uses locally grown corn for its Upshot 80 percent corn whiskey matured in virgin white oak, with limited-edition bottles aged in virgin European oak and used Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. On the other side of the country, in Melbourne, Ben Bowles and his partners at The Gospel occasionally release limited bottlings of aged moonshine alongside their signature Australian ryes. “Corn doesn’t carry a massive amount of grain character through maturation, but it retains sweetness, and coupled with the flavors of the oak it gives us a whiskey that’s light and mellow while still being rich,” he explains. “We love working with 100 percent corn whiskeys because they throw so much funk and sweetness into the mix—with this stuff, you could easily convince a rum drinker to come across to the whiskey side.”