From Farm To Distillery, Heirloom Corn Varieties Are Sweet Treasures

Jul 4, 2016
Originally published on July 4, 2016 4:58 pm

"Knee-high by the Fourth of July" is an old favorite saying, when you'd drive past a field of corn out in the country. And many of the old favorite varieties, called heirloom corn, have lots of new friends.

In recent years, seed companies have been reporting big sales numbers for these varieties. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri says sales are "skyrocketing" — a fitting verb for the fireworks holiday.

And in Kentucky, two projects are growing up around heirloom corn. One is a new adventure in bourbon distilling, and the other takes place on a hilltop farm in the northern part of the state.

I went to see Jennifer Gleason's small farm, and on the way I was thinking of some of the colorful heirloom names, such as Painted Mountain Corn, Bloody Butcher and Country Gentleman.

Gleason's favorite? Hickory King Corn.

A longtime farmer, she's trying to raise enough food for her family, mostly fruits and vegetables. Fifteen years ago she decided to start growing a grain, and went looking for corn. She was introduced to Hickory King.

"I went to the local hardware store in downtown Maysville ... a really old-fashioned one where you had the seeds in bins that you shoveled out and weighed. And it was the only corn that wasn't pink. All the other corn was coated with a fungicide," she says.

Gleason now has a corn house where she works with a grain mill, grinding the Hickory King she brings in from the fields. For the home table she makes grits, hominy and corn bread.

"With time I learned it was an open-pollinated heirloom variety best known for making great moonshine, making great hominy. Animals love it as fodder," she says.

Gleason's farm is now a tiny factory, called Sunflower Sundries. She makes and sells lot of soap, jars of jam, pickled asparagus, and the Hickory King line which now includes corn chips. They come in 12-ounce bags, which sell well in nearby counties and by mail order. Two local farmers help her grow enough of the corn.

I was pleased to hear Jennifer mention moonshine. Of course, that's how bourbon got started in the first place, with the Scots-Irish settlers in Appalachia growing corn, adding value by cooking it, distilling it, and transporting the liquor in barrels. And I'd heard that Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, alongside the Kentucky River, has an experimental project underway that uses heirloom corn.

I went to meet Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley and we talked amid the noise and the steam and the sweet aroma of fermenting corn. Buffalo Trace plans to make bourbon from heirloom corn, using a different variety each year. On the morning I visited he was watching over the project's first selection, harvested last fall, called Boone County White.

"All the grain from the farm, we dried it in a silo and then we brought it in and ground it. It's been fermented about five days. We're going to still it today," Wheatley says.

The company has set aside 18 acres on a farm it's bought next door, making it easy to keep watch during the season.

"The stuff was 15 feet tall," Wheatley says. "Some of the ears were 24 inches long. We were pretty excited when we saw the ears, but the problem was there was only one or two per stalk."

Two ears on each stalk? That's about right for most corn — it was the 24-inch ear that impressed Wheatley.

As it turned out they had a good enough crop for 117 barrels of bourbon. Now it will take six years to age, the barrels stored away in a warehouse. No one can predict what it might end up tasting like, although the company has grand expectations.

When the proper time comes there will be a taste test. Respectable whiskey writers will get together and sip and decide what's really in the heirloom corn barrel. The highest rated of all time? That's Pappy Van Winkle, namesake of the bourbon now produced by Buffalo Trace, scoring 95 out of 100 points.

Amy Preske, the company's public relations director, says they're hoping this experiment produces a perfect 100 score.

Preske's department loves to send out stories about elegantly dressed gentlemen who once made fine whiskey. In this case — the choice of the heirloom variety factors in. Boone County White was said to be a favorite corn of E.H Taylor, who's often referred to as a "founding father" of the bourbon industry. Buffalo Trace can date its beginnings back to Taylor's distillery in the late 1800s. That's job satisfaction for Perske. "We like things that have good history behind them, because that's basically what marketing is about — it's telling good stories."

Taylor's new bourbon will be ready in 2022, followed in one year by heirloom crop No. 2 — Japonica Striped Corn, which did come from Japan, and has striped leaves, purple tassels, and burgundy kernels.

That corn — here on the Fourth of July — is reported to be 12 inches high.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Knee-high by the Fourth of July is an old saying in corn country, and the old favorite varieties, called heirloom corn, have lots of new friends. Seed companies report that sales are way up. NPR's Noah Adams tells us about two projects trying to make heirloom corn profitable.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I love the old names - Painted Mountain corn, Bloody Butcher, Country Gentleman. And when I arrive on the front porch of Jennifer Gleason's hilltop farm in northern Kentucky, she probably tells me her favorite.

JENNIFER GLEASON: The Hickory King corn.

ADAMS: And this corn is a good part of her livelihood. Fifteen years ago, Jennifer Gleason, a longtime organic farmer, decided she needed to be raising more of what her family really should be eating.

GLEASON: I went to the local hardware store in downtown Maysville - which is no longer there now - a really old-fashioned one where you had the seeds in bins that you shoveled out and weighed, and it was the only corn that wasn't pink. All the other corn was coated with a fungicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAIN MILL CHURNING)

ADAMS: This is Gleason's trusty grain mill on a table in her workshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAIN MILL CHURNING)

ADAMS: She grinds hickory king corn for several products.

GLEASON: With time, I learned it was an open-pollinated heirloom variety best known for making great moonshine, making hominy, animals love it as fodder.

ADAMS: Jennifer Gleason's farm is a tiny factory. She makes lots of soap, jars of jam, pickled asparagus, cornmeal, grits, hominy and her new Hickory King corn chips in 12-ounce bags, selling well in nearby counties. Two local farmers help her grow enough grain. And that notion of someday, someone making whiskey from heirloom corn? There's an experiment right now doing just that at Buffalo Trace Distillery, west of here on the Kentucky River.

HARLEN WHEATLEY: All the grain from the farm, we dried it in a silo and then we brought it in, ground it and it's been fermented about five days. We're going to distill it today.

ADAMS: Harlen Wheatley. He's the master distiller, and he's watching over this project. The old corn is a local favorite called Boone County White.

WHEATLEY: 'Cause the stuff was 15 feet tall and the ears - some of the ears were 24 inches long. We were pretty excited when we saw the ears, but the problem was there was only one or two per stalk.

ADAMS: They had a good enough crop for 117 barrels. The whiskey being distilled on this day will age in a warehouse for six years. No one knows what it might end up tasting like, but the company wants something perfect.

AMY PRESKE: No bourbon has ever scored a hundred points.

ADAMS: Amy Preske, of Buffalo Trace. She's talking about the taste test, when the whiskey writers get together and sip and decide, and the company's marketing department loves to send out stories about elegantly-dressed gentlemen who once made fine whiskey. Pappy Van Winkle is the best-known. E.H. Taylor was one of the founders of the distillery, and this new bourbon will be offered in his name.

PRESKE: We like things that have, you know, good history behind them because that's basically what marketing is about is telling good stories.

ADAMS: And Buffalo Trace is now starting the second year making bourbon from the old varieties. Crop number two, Japonica Striped corn, on this Fourth of July is 12 inches high. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.