How Heirloom Grains Are Bringing Unique New Flavors to Whiskey

This whiskey-world arms race has accelerated in recent years, with brands taking big swings to make new bottles stand out. Most of the energy has focused on the aging end of things, using barrels made from nonstandard woods, for example, or creative cask finishes. Some distilleries have even blasted their whiskey with heavy-metal music or put it on board ships to sail the open ocean.

There is, however, a small but growing group of whiskey makers tinkering with the very start of the process, using heirloom grains rather than commodity products in the mash bill. These rare cultivars of rye, corn, and barley were developed decades or even centuries ago and have fallen largely out of use. American craft distillers are reviving them in the hopes that these forgotten crops can unlock new flavors—and new demand.

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Take Scott Blackwell, cofounder of High Wire Distilling in Charleston, S.C., who set out to prove that different types of corn could have the same effect on a bourbon’s flavor as grape varietals do on wine. His flagship spirit, Jimmy Red, uses Jimmy Red corn because it “has more complex properties, such as higher oil content, cinnamic acid, and anthocyanin,” he explains. “These properties contribute to the flavor,” which is described as having notes of graham crackers, cinnamon, and maple.

It’s far easier to stick to mass-produced grains, and most distilleries do. But for an elite few, these older and rarer selections are worth the effort and expense involved. In the case of New York Distillery Company’s Jaywalk Rye, cofounder Allen Katz worked with Cornell University’s College of Agriculture for five years to bring an heirloom grain, Horton rye, from seed to spirit.

“Revitalizing a lost and forgotten variety of rye takes time and a nearly perverse sense of patience,” Katz admits. He believes it pays off on the palate: Jaywalk has what he describes as less spice and more tropical-fruit notes than other ryes. He attributes this quality to Horton’s physical makeup: “The head is tiny, a third of the size of conventional rye, with all of the sugars concentrated in a small set of seeds.”

Ultimately, whiskey has to taste good no matter what type of grain is used. But these heirloom-distilled versions offer proof of concept with unique flavor profiles that differ significantly from whiskey made with mass-produced grains. In a world with seemingly endless options, these expressions truly stand out.

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