As many a Kentucky master distiller is known to say, Bourbon is made from corn because that’s what grew here. Different varietals of the crop have been adapted to suit different regions and understanding the nuts and bolts of these adaptations, growing practices and impending threats is crucial to protecting the future of Bourbon and other American whiskeys.
While historically distilleries came after farms as a means of preserving crops, since Prohibition, distilleries have mainly operated independently. Now there is a swing back toward incorporating farming in some manner to even the largest of distilleries.
“Grain is one of the most basic components of our product, and working with local farmers is an incredible opportunity for us, as we pursue our goal of making the greatest American whiskey,” says Daniel McKee, master distiller and VP of production for Michter’s. “Being able to build relationships with family farmers and understand processes, techniques, and other factors involved with growing the highest quality non-GMO corn is an interesting learning experience. We are only just getting started so we are still in the infancy stages of our learning.
At Michter’s we are building a team of incredibly talented team members and the more we know about all of our raw materials, the more we can ensure the sustainability and quality of our grains. We look forward to continuing to learn with this generation and the next generation of family farmers to continue to produce quality grains.”
Without corn there is no Bourbon, so it makes sense to be proactive in finding heirloom or beyond heirloom varietals that tolerate changing climate conditions or which will produce a more favourable end product. Quality control starts with the grains, and many distilleries are also starting to search for wheat, rye, and barley varietals that will grow in regions not typically known to support them.
“We have learned a lot of lessons thanks to our key partners,” says Susan Wahl, American Whiskey group product director for Heaven Hill. “While we absolutely know how to distil whiskey and had some knowledge of farming, we knew we needed partners with deeper knowledge than us. So, we began this process by working with another family owned company, Beck’s Seed Company. They share many of the same values and have helped us navigate the world of seed. By discussing distillation needs and tapping into their depth of research and knowledge of seed genetics, we were able to really understand which seeds work best in this region and which seeds will provide higher starch content for distillation. They have more diversity in their offerings, which is perfect for our goal of experimentation.
“We always knew that rye prospered more in the North, but we have been very interested in experimenting with it here in Kentucky. This brings challenges with it and we are working with specific farmers in the community on how to overcome those challenges. One of our primary farming resources has been another family owned company, Peterson Farms. They have provided us with great insight on planting, crop rotation, grain storage and more... we have learned a great deal about the farming community, their unique connection to nature as well as people, and the inherent risks in their business.”
As consumer demand increases for locally sourced grains, as well as for products that are new and different, distilleries which are studying the history and cultivation of these grains will have a leg up on the competition.
Much of the ‘corn belt’ has experienced extremely wet conditions since last summer, and it has hindered planting, growing, and harvesting. Farmers are struggling to get crops in the ground during short periods of dry weather, and in some places planting had been significantly delayed. Understanding and adapting to this and other challenges is something that can be addressed with this type of research, and the time for research is now, before significant problems arise. An ounce of prevention, as they say. What will the future hold for corn and thus for the Bourbon industry? Time will tell.