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.