Is the Future of Bourbon Heritage Grains?
High Wire Distillery in Charleston makes a complex whiskey from historic and obscure Jimmy Red Corn. Find out why you should be drinking spirits made from heritage grains.
New Southern Revival Straight Bourbon from High Wire Distillery in Charleston, South Carolina, is made from a mash consisting only of Jimmy Red Corn. It’s an old hooch corn, with beautiful, ragged runs of kernels that vary from fire orange to a deep, purplish red. It’s named after James Island, South Carolina, where it was grown for decades and almost drifted off into extinction.
“Cool name, cool story, but it tastes different, and that’s what’s important,” says Scott Blackwell, who started High Wire distilling with his wife Ann Marshall in 2013. Their work was recognized this year with a nomination for the James Beard Award for outstanding wine, spirits or beer producer.
Blackwell came from a baking background—“food and flavor” he says. He paid his way through college baking pies. He then started the Immaculate Baking Company in his garage in 1995, and in 2012 sold it to General Mills. “I’ve been in the food business my whole life, all the way back to fifteen, washing dishes, working at fish camps.”
He didn’t come to distilling with a degree in chemical engineering or a family tradition to uphold. “Our grandpappy doesn’t have some recipe,” he’s quick to point out and he didn’t have all that much experience in liquor, either. He was thinking maybe a brewery. Ann seems to have seen the future first. When he was growing up, after all, the booze you could get in South Carolina came in mini-bottles stacked on the back bar. For most of his life, he didn’t even think of spirits as something that might be good to drink.
I suspect he was well-served by this lack of inherited wisdom.
For it is a long-held industry belief that the type of corn one uses to make bourbon doesn’t contribute much to the flavor.
“They believe that after four years the corn lays down and the barrel becomes the flavor, because of the sugar and how it reacts,” he says. “Well, with yellow or white corn, it does just go away, and you’re playing off that sugar.”
Any grain flavor from the corn has been supplanted by the big flavors of new American oak.
Blackwell was puzzled, as well, by the language of distillers who typically refer to the smaller percentages of rye or wheat in the mash bill as “flavor grains.” Why, he wondered, would you ignore the flavor profile of your corn in a product that is mostly corn?
“It’s like tomatoes or mushrooms, a white mushroom, versus a shitake, versus a morel—it’s all going to have different flavors,” he says.
So Blackwell needed to find a person who knew a lot about the history of corn and heirloom grains. That pilgrimage led him to Glenn Roberts who is the founder of Anson Mills and a local Charleston legend who brought back Carolina gold rice. Roberts showed him a table full of corn. “He’s very manic,” says Blackwell. There were all sorts of varieties, all sorts of characteristics, and Roberts kept skipping around, showing Blackwell and his wife everything before he finally unveiled the Jimmy Red. “Finally he says ‘that’s an old hooch corn, that’s the one you want.’”
They started slow—forty pounds of Jimmy Red seed grown on about two acres. The yield of heritage grains such as Jimmy Red isn’t what it would be if you were growing newer, optimized grains, but the crop came in, even though they ended up having to harvest it by hand.
Once they ground the kernels and got the cornmeal into the fermenter, Blackwell could tell it was something different. “It doesn’t smell corny at all,” he says. “It’s got this three-inch oil cap on it, it’s got this purplish red color to it.”
He’d never seen that in test runs of other types of corn and when the white dog started flowing off the still, it was apparent that they were on to something different, and something good. The alcohol was complex, Blackwell says, with a pleasant viscosity. He tasted light spice, earthy undertones, and marzipan.
From that moment, he was a man obsessed with Jimmy Red.
He read Anthony Boutard’s book, Beautiful Corn, and learned about the 59 unique types of corn available. Blackwell found himself cupping corn porridges and tasting varieties. But he still didn’t understand exactly what he was tasting or how these flavors developed.
“What are the genetics on that?” he asked “Where are these flavors coming from? What else is out there?”
Blackwell made a giant step in his understanding when he began to learn about the correlations between color and flavor. “Jimmy Red has a high level of beta carotene, it also has a high level of anthocyanin.” In addition, it’s full of a flavonoid, which makes things taste like cinnamon.
He talked about it, he says, for a year, until Roberts came to him and asked him if he wanted to go to Oaxaca and do a deep dive on the origins of the corn variety.
He began packing immediately.
They went to kitchens, to markets, to a state-run center for agricultural research, looking for the ancestors of the southeastern dent corns, which came north two thousand years ago, and were traded by Native Americans. But tracing the corns can be difficult. There are no records, no one wrote the information down, and many traditions were lost.
He’s only half kidding when he says that he has come to think of himself as a maize archeologist.
Knowingly echoing famed southern writer Wendell Berry’s maxim that eating is an agricultural act, Blackwell says, “I don’t really see it as booze anymore. It’s agriculture.”
In the glass, his Jimmy Red bourbon is more mature than it should be. It’s got a nectar soft sweetness, and finishes with a mineral earthiness reminiscent of Muscadet. It’s still got corn flavor, but not much of that polenta and corn flake flavor that clings to young whiskies.
High Wire harvested about 250,000 pounds of the special corn last year and is expecting to double that this year. The opinion of using heritage grains to make whiskey has also started to fortunately change. Westland in Seattle and Leopold Brothers in Denver, are making acclaimed whiskey with heritage strains of barley and rye, and Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris has tried a number of obscure corn varieties as has Buffalo Trace.
Blackwell’s next project is constructing a genetic fingerprint of Jimmy Red Corn, so he can build a hypothesis of its origins. Maybe he’ll make an ancestral series of whiskies that would highlight the diaspora.
“That would be interesting for us,” he says. As I swirled the last bit of his whiskey in my glass, I couldn’t agree more.