This Is the Next Wave of Whiskey You Need to Try
Standing out in a crowd of thousands is hard, but if new whiskey companies plan on surviving, they are going to have to figure out how to do just that. There are currently around 2,000 distilleries in the U.S., and the ones that produce whiskey are fighting for shelf space, not just with each other, but with bottles from Ireland, Scotland and the rest of the world. But for many of the smaller companies, a growing trend of using heirloom, local and specialty grains is providing an advantage. Upstart whiskey producers no longer have to be just another company making juice from similar—if not the same—ingredients as everyone else. They can create something specific to a time and place.
On January 2, as talks of dry January started popping up, NPR published a story about a variety of corn that had nearly gone extinct called Jimmy Red. It’s a hard corn that looks like it’s been dipped in blood red paint and was a go-to for moonshiners around South Carolina. Even after Prohibition, you could still find small batches of Jimmy Red ‘shine if you knew somebody who knew somebody. But then in the late 1990s, that somebody that everyone knew died, and suddenly there were just two ears of Jimmy Red corn left.
Ted Chewning, a farmer and seed saver with a habit of rescuing crops close to extinction, was given those last two ears of corn. He grew more of it year over year. Then in the early 2000s, celebrated Southern chef Sean Brock started using Jimmy Red in his restaurants. About a decade later, Jimmy Red caught the eye of South Carolina’s High Wire Distilling, bringing the heirloom grain back to its distilling roots.
“It behaves like no other corn I’ve distilled,” Scott Blackwell, the co-founder of High Wire Distilling, told NPR. “The pearls of oil on the distillate taste of marzipan and light cherry—not corn.”
Blackwell worked with Clemson University to grow more Jimmy Red specifically for distillation. In 2018, the first 100-percent Jimmy Red corn bourbon finished its two years of aging, putting moonshiner’s heirloom corn back into people’s glasses.
“We’re at this point in time when there’s a cultural movement and appreciation to talk about what varietal flavor does,” Matt Hofmann, the co-founder and master distiller of Westland Distillery in Seattle, tells Supercall. Westland carefully sources specific varieties of barley to create distinct flavors in its whiskey, much as High Wire uses Jimmy Red corn. “It’s still the early days and there’s relatively few of us, but it’s definitely going to pick up because that’s what people want and expect these days.”
A focus on the grain in whiskey—specifically heirloom and specialty grains that aren’t traditionally used in commercial production—is where the industry is heading.
High Wire and Westland weren’t the first distilleries to break away from the high yield grains traditionally favored by large distilleries. Companies across the country saw it coming. Pinckney Bend, Fugitives Spirits and Widow Jane are just a few of the many distilleries touting heirloom grains.
“People have been conditioned for so long to think that whiskey has nothing to do with grain or agriculture, which doesn’t make sense,” Hofmann says. “Whiskey has gotten so separated from the agriculture that produced it, and now we’re at this point where we’re turning that back around.”
Over the phone, Hofmann returns multiple times to a comparison between whiskey and wine. “Imagine if all wine was Merlot,” he says. “Think of how much less interesting the world of wine would be. And that’s where we’re at (with whiskey) today.”
In his metaphor, a grain like corn is Merlot. There’s already a lot of Merlot out there, but imagine if there was nothing else. Each winery could make something that tastes slightly different because of climate and aging styles, but the bottles would be largely homogenous. It’s similar to how each whiskey made with the same corn mash tastes slightly different depending on what type of barrel is used and how long it’s aged. But there’s not just one type of wine grape, and there’s not just one type of corn. There are nearly 20,000 different types of corn in the world, according to the University of Georgia, compared to just 10,000 varieties of grape. The metaphor works for other grains used to make whiskey like barley, rye and wheat. The potential for increased variety quickly becomes overwhelming.
Other types of alcohol have capitalized on base ingredients for decades. Vodka makers have long used their ingredients as selling points, with Grey Goose and its winter wheat base as the most obvious example. But Ciroc’s grapes or Tito’s corn have been front and center on their bottles for a long time too.
For whiskey, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, where and why makers started focusing on grain. There’s a case to be made that it started with local quality food. Allison Parc, the founder of Brenne French Single Malt Whisky, traces the rising trend to the local food and beer movements. Elite restaurants like Noma have created interest and broken boundaries by creating recipes inspired by whatever ingredients they can find nearby. People are consuming more local food at home as well, as seen by the year over year rise of farmers markets. Even other liquors are going local. South Hollow Spirits makes its Dry Line Cape Cod Gin using Eastern Red Cedar juniper berries that grow steps from the distillery. Whiskey can’t drastically alter its ingredients, but it can do something similar to food and gin by focusing on grain selection.
“I think that a focus on the grains used in whiskey making is driven from both sides,” Parc says. “From producers who have chosen to create whiskey with this focus, and consumers who want to support companies like Brenne who are making whiskeys using local ingredients and organic farming practices.”
There’s also a somewhat cynical argument to be made that small whiskey companies need a catchy marketing tool. A story like heirloom or local grains from a small farmer is a marketing team’s dream. There are nearly 2,000 distilleries in America now. The smaller companies don’t have the resources to compete with large liquor companies and heirloom and specialty grains, like High Wire’s Jimmy Red, push the brands beyond niche alcohol media and into the mainstream.
But the simplest explanation of why the grain focus started: It tastes better. The true reason for the trend likely lies somewhere in the middle, with different companies having different reasons. One thing is clear, though. It’s not cheap.
Large liquor companies are able to make vast amounts of consistent (and consistently priced) product, Hofmann says, because of the commodity grain system. The way things are run now, farmers grow a few very specific varieties of grain that large liquor and beer companies need. That grain has been thoroughly tested for yield, malt time and flavor. Large producers aren’t interested in buying anything else, so farmers trying to make a living don’t grow grains outside of the system. Small companies that don’t have the capital to strongly influence farmers’ decisions are left to buy from the same selection.
The commodity system allows farmers to rely on a steady check each year. It helps distillers because they get the same product time and time again. What it doesn’t help is genetic diversity or flavor diversity. If you want that, you have to pay for it, Westland discovered.
In 2012, Westland partnered with Washington State University’s Bread Lab to grow different types of barley for the distillery’s single malt whiskey. The partnership gave farmers the opportunity to branch out. Westland pays triple the commodity grain price for lesser used varieties, Hofmann says, in an attempt to create an incentive for farmers to put something new in the ground.
“There’s a growing number of people in the country in the middle of a long paradigm shift,” Steve Hawley, the director of marketing at Westland, tells Supercall. “People are choosing brands and products based on the values they share. Whiskey is booming.”