When people think about Kentucky distilleries, they often ponder the brash master distillers or the charred oak barrels ageing in those magnificent smelling wooden warehouses or the two fingers neat swirling in their lovely Glencairn glass. Far down on the list is Kentucky corn and wheat growers, who are Kentucky Bourbon through and through.
Without distilleries, Kentucky corn and wheat farmers would lose an important outlet to sell their grains. According to a recent Kentucky Distillers Association report, distillers purchase up to 40 per cent of their grains from Kentucky farmers. Since Bourbon must be made with at least 51 per cent corn, that means Bourbon is the No. 1 purchaser of Kentucky corn, while the University of Kentucky says the state's wheat, a cover crop, has little demand, making bourbon wheat's top purchaser as well. As for rye, well, it doesn't grow well in Kentucky. Rye needs a colder climate and flourishes in the likes of North Dakota, Germany and Canada.
With that said, all Kentucky distilleries purchase local grains; they just don't promote this fact.
That may soon change as smaller distilleries are promoting their local farmer and grain-to-glass distillery operations. As the American whiskey narrative constantly changes - from legends to transparency - look for distilleries to start promoting grain origins. Ahead of the curve, these ten American distilleries (detailed below) not only believe in using local grains, it's a big part of their story.
Sonoma County Distilling
Where the wine grapes grow, Sonoma County Distilling was born in 2010 with an intention to make whiskey from grain to glass.
Located in the beautiful San Joaquin Valley, California, the Sweet Potato Spirits company is somewhat a by-product of the 100 year old Souza family's sweet potato farm ventures. A throwback to old school farmer distillers, the Souzas are perfectionist farmers and distillers who make mostly vodka from their homegrown sweet potatoes. But they also make a Corbin Cash 'Merced' rye whiskey that's produced from rye grown on the farm. Merced rye is a breed that is drought resistant and can tolerate water logging; thus, it's the perfect species for California.
With the exception of the barley, all grain comes from a few miles from the distillery. Maker's Mark is a wheated Bourbon and has been working with the same wheat farmers for generations.
For the Hudson Baby Bourbon line, New York state based Tuthilltown Spirits purchases corn within ten miles of the distillery. They're using a combination of local field corn and Wapsie Valley Corn, an open-pollinated heirloom, two-coloured dent corn that is linked back to the 1850s.
The Seattle area distillery uses several Washington grown and malted barley varieties in its single American malt whiskeys.
Troy & Sons
North Carolina based Troy & Sons Distillery use Crooked Creek Corn and Turkey Red Wheat both grown in Old Fort. Crooked Creek Corn has been grown on the same family farm since the mid 1800s. "Crooked Creek Corn loves the cool temperatures found in the mountains and evidently craves the soils found in these narrow mountain valleys," says Troy Ball, the founder of Troy & Sons. "When I had the corn analysed at The University of Tennessee Corn Lab, they told me that it is the highest fat content corn they had ever seen. We all know fat is where the flavour is at, so I feel incredibly lucky to have discovered this lovely corn."
Hillrock Estate Distillery - Ancram
New York state based Hillrock Distillery sources its grain - corn, rye and barley - direct from Hillrock Estate. All Hillrock's fields are located within a few miles of the distillery and malthouse. "The magnitude of having complete control over the grains from planting and harvest, through malting, fermenting and distilling, through ageing and bottling gives Hillrock an advantage in quality control over all of our spirits," says Danielle Eddy, a company spokesperson.
Berkshire Mountain Distillery
Great Barrington, Massachusetts based Berkshire Mountain Distillers grows its own organic apples for its brandies. For the whiskey products, Berkshire purchases corn from a neighbour three miles down the road. "The small grains we have been getting from North Country Malt, as there were not many available around here," says Chris Weld, founder of the distillery. "However, we just contracted with a grower in New York about 20 miles away who is going to be supplying us rye , wheat and barley."
Whiskey Acres Distillery
DeKalb, Illinois based Whiskey Acres Distillery represents about 10 per cent of the size of the family farm, but it costs about as much as a new combine. The group has been farming this land for about 50 years and is roughly 60 miles West of Chicago. Opened since 2012, Whiskey Acres grows several different varieties of corn, winter wheat and rye all season long. It is the second distillery to receive the American Distilling Institute's Certified Farm Distillery designation. "As fifth generation farmers, our life's focus has been dedicated to raising the highest quality grains," says Nick Nagle, co-founder of the distillery. "We can't get much more local than raising it ourselves, which enables us to craft a whiskey that is truly special because we control the process from seed to spirit. The terroir of our whiskey is apparent because we pick our best fields and soils for our whiskey grains. Even more fun is we will explore rare and specialty corn varieties beyond yellow corn that will lead to great-tasting, unique spirits." The new company markets an unaged corn whiskey, an apple-flavoured whiskey and just put bourbon into the barrel.
Myer Farm Distillers
From New York's Finger Lakes region, Myer Farm Distillers grows its own corn and wheat for its product line.