Whisky is an agricultural product, borne of the necessity to preserve excess crops and make them easier for storage, transport and trade. The distilled spirits industry as we know it today grew from this necessity, but thanks to the farm-to-table movement there has been a push to honour these agricultural roots. Some of the larger distilleries are experimenting with agricultural programmes of their own, while craft distillery operations are starting from the grain up.
“I always tell people that it’s easier to get corn across the country in a conestoga wagon in jugs, than it is in a bushel basket,” says Whiskey Acres co-founder Nick Nagele.
Nagele, a farmer before all else, partnered with neighbours Jim and Jamie Walter to start Whiskey Acres on the Walter family farm, which the Walters have been farming since the 1930s. Nagele’s family has been farming on their farm since the 1860s. The hammer mill used at the distillery came from another neighbour’s barn. It’s a true farming community.
“We use between five and ten per cent of what we grow here to operate the distillery,” says Nagele. “That allows us to be very selective about what we keep for ourselves.”
“If you put your distiller hat on,” Nagele continues, “instead of making decisions for just gross quantity, you can make decisions on hybrid quality to manage things like disease resistance and quality instead of just bushels per acre. We can control the process from the seeds to the product.”
At Whiskey Acres, controlled experiments have shown which flavours come through in the final product for each of the varietals.
The Starlight Distillery also began as a family farm and branched out, first to wine and later to distilled spirits. “One of the key factors is that we can control the quality of our grains and fruits that go into our spirits,” says Christian Huber. “We grow mostly heirloom varieties on different soils that produce different flavours which is very similar to the same process that we use for growing different varieties of grapes. We keep the different varieties from different locations on our farm and we distil these varieties in different batches to truly reflect the terroir. We were founded in 1843 and have been farming our family estate for 175 years. We know our terroir by heart, the topography, soils, climate and growing degree days and how it affects the overall quality of our wines and spirits.”
Heritage distillery-first operations have begun to realise the advantages to growing corn themselves. “There are advantages to growing our own corn,” says Heaven Hill American whiskey group product director, Susan Wahl. “There is a growing interest in the concept that the soil and general environmental conditions can have a great influence on the flavour and aroma of grains or other natural resources grown in an area – no different than for wine. By growing this on our property and adjacent to our warehouses and bottling house, we hope that we can see that influence more directly.”
Michter’s also owns farmland in Kentucky, where they partner with local farmers to learn more about growing practices, terroir and more.
“One of the biggest advantages is to be able to do some really interesting farm-to-distillery releases with our own estate grown grain where we can share more of the intimate details of the process starting with the farm, the non-GMO corn variety we grow, and learning how our land and its particular attributes influence the profile of the product,” says Michter’s master distiller Dan McKee.
“Today’s consumers want to know more about the products, so working with a local farmer allows us to learn more details, explore non-GMO corn varieties and flavour, and discuss different factors about soil condition, crop size, crop rotation and farming practices.”
Controlling outcomes and learning opportunities aren’t the only advantages for distilleries growing their own corn.
As Nagele puts it, “Is there a better story for a distillery than to look out the window and say ‘that’s where your Bourbon grew’?”