No matter the size of the Bourbon distillery, they all have one thing in common: corn. Legally Bourbon has to be made from at least 51 per cent corn, but it can be made from 100 per cent corn and still be called Bourbon as long as it meets the other standards of identity. The reason Bourbon is made predominantly from corn is because that is what grew well in Kentucky during the days of the settlers. These days corn is still one of Kentucky’s largest crops – 1.34 million acres of it were planted in 2018 alone. On a distillery tour you may see truckloads of corn coming in and unloading, but rarely do you get to meet one of the farmers who grows the corn for the Bourbon industry.
Corn has always been a large part of Kentucky’s agricultural footprint, and with the decline of tobacco it has become very important.
“During the past few years the demand for corn has increased significantly due in part to the increased demands from the distilleries,” says Doug Langley of Langley Farms, who grows corn for Woodford Reserve, Angel’s Envy, and more. “For my operation personally, the change has been a noticeable one. What was once a one or two load per week to one distillery, has expanded to include a handful of distilleries each requesting anywhere from one load a week, to multiple loads per day. This increased demand for corn has positively affected the farming community regardless of whether or not the farmer sells their corn to a distillery. Due to the increase in demand, likewise, the price of corn has increased, therefore all of the farming community has been reaping the benefits.
"The corns we grow for Ky Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey include conventional yellow non-GMO corn, conventional white non-GMO corn, and the open-pollinated heirloom White Hickory King for Castle & Key,” says Sam Halcomb of Walnut Grove Farms, who grows corn for Castle & Key and many others.
Langley began hauling corn to Woodford Reserve back in 2005, but he was growing corn, tobacco, and soybeans before that and continues to do so today. The growth in demand from the Bourbon industry has led to expansion at his farm, including a newly finished office building and additional grain bins.
The increased demand for corn has allowed many farming families to scale their operations up to meet market demands brought on by the Bourbon boom in Kentucky and beyond.
“Our family has been farming on the Ky-Tn line for at least six generations and I’m sure a fair bit of our corn has been distilled over that time,” says Halcomb. “However, our recent focus on the industry was a diversification idea of my dad’s about 6-7 years ago. We wanted to remain focused on our core strength, grain production, but needed to diversify risk. We decided to diversify our customer base. It actually started with barley. We’ve always grown barley for animal feed but my dad became interested in malting and we started attempting to grow malt-quality barley for brewing and distilling. He said he didn’t like golf and needed a hobby.”
While most corn in Kentucky is a standard yellow corn, many farmers are reviving heirloom varietals.
“I explain the difference between Hickory King and modern corns like the difference between your current car and a Model T Ford,” says Halcomb. “If you don’t care anything about experience then your modern car actually does the job better. But if you ride to town and back it will be much more memorable in a Model T. We typically plant a large corn field, partially in Hickory King and partially in modern white non-GMO corn. The contrast is stark. The modern corn looks like rows of soldiers going to battle, medium height, standing straight up, leaves dutifully reaching for sunlight (fuel). The Hickory King on the other hand, is much taller, slouching, laid back, leaves all over the place. But, the experience! The Hickory King flavour is fabulous. I’ve not had the chance to taste any Hickory King Bourbon yet, but I have had tortillas made with it. I chew on it straight out of the combine. Amazing!”