Smoke and spirits are well-known coconspirators. Think of whiskeys from Scotland, or mezcals from Mexico. For years, Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell, the owners of High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston, South Carolina, have been mulling how to create a smoky spirit of their own. After all, “we’re both Southern,” Blackwell says, “and there’s barbecue and smoked ham and bacon here.”
The duo first considered making an experimental smoked sorghum spirit (un-exciting), and then gave more thought as to how to add smoke after a trip to Grenada, where they discovered Rivers Royale Grenadian Rum, a local product boldly infused with the taste of burning sugarcane. But it was a trip to Mexico, during which they met some mezcal producers, that prodded them to move from thinking to doing. “It really came together when we watched the process from beginning to end,” Blackwell says.
Their earlier efforts taught them one thing: Smoke can be a troublesome partner. It can be bossy and unforgiving. It can hijack the flavors into less favorable territory—damp ashtray rather than half-day brisket.
Allan Benton knows a thing or two about wrangling smoke. After a short stint as a high school counselor, he bought a smokehouse in Madisonville, Tennessee, in 1973 that had been around for years but had drifted downward. Benton set about reversing that, learning the intricacies of smoking. He opted to embrace traditional methods, using heritage pork breeds and sticking to simple ingredients, like brown sugar and salt, and eschewing preservatives while letting the smoked hams cure for months. His densely smoky hams, bacon, pork jowls, and more got the attention of the chefs at the Barn at Blackberry Farm down the road; the Southern Foodways Alliance took note of the quality of his meats. Other famed chefs, including David Chang and Tom Colicchio from New York, soon made their way to his door.
Nearly three decades after buying the smokehouse (and after struggling the first twenty years to keep the business going), Benton found demand outrunning supply—and waiting lists for his products growing. Chefs wanted his ham, and then so did bartenders. Among the enduring modern classics to emerge from the recent craft cocktail renaissance: the Benton’s Old Fashioned, created in 2007 by the bartender Don Lee at New York’s PDT using bourbon infused with the smoky goodness of Benton’s bacon.
In the past handful of years, Marshall and Blackwell developed an award-winning whiskey using Jimmy Red corn, a variety once favored by moonshiners along the South Carolina coast. The couple started to wonder: What would happen if corn met smokehouse? They approached Benton—whom they knew socially from Southern food events—and asked, hesitatingly, if they could store a sack or two of their corn in one of his two smokehouses for a spell.
Well, that’s not how it works, Benton told them. He’d do it, but his way. “He politely told me to mind my own business,” Blackwell recalls.
As it turns out, Benton was already quite well versed in smoking grains—he’s worked with dozens of brewers who wanted to introduce smokiness to their beer, including Garrett Oliver, the James Beard Award– winning brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. For these collaborations, he typically loads the grain into fine-mesh sacks the size of a fifteen-pound ham and hangs them in the smokehouse for several days.
For their pilot project, Marshall and Blackwell shipped a ton of corn to Benton’s, where it went into bags, got hung, and spent six days smothered in smoke before returning to the distillery to become whiskey. When it arrived, the corn didn’t just smell like smoke, Blackwell says, but carried the deep scent of the smoked meat as well. “We put it in the farthest corner of our distillery,” Marshall says. “And everybody working here was really hungry until we got it distilled.”
Marshall and Blackwell were anxious about the project—what can seem like a good idea can often flounder and fail when carried out. With some trepidation, they cooked the corn and fermented it, then ran it through their still. What came out thrilled them—it had more of the character of a deep-bodied mezcal, in which the pungency of the smoke tastes more embedded, and less like peaty Scotch, in which the smoke can seem like an adornment.
“You know, sometimes you have a hunch about something, and then it turns out even better than expected,” Blackwell says. “That’s sort of what happened here. Everybody said, ‘Wow, this is really good’—even before it went into the barrels for aging.”
With their first batch, they distilled enough whiskey to fill just three of those barrels, which they’ve put up to age and to develop more mature notes. Then they asked Benton if he’d be willing to smoke more—essentially graduating from experiment to full-on production. Last May, High Wire sent five thousand pounds of corn to Madisonville, where it was smoked for six days, about half that time sharing a smokehouse with bacon. Most of what comes out of the still will end up in new oak barrels for aging, but they found the as-yet-unnamed white whiskey intriguing enough that they plan to issue a limited number of bottles in the fall—the first unaged whiskey High Wire has released. “It’s built more for cocktails than for sipping,” Blackwell says.
Who will like this whiskey? Fans of traditional bourbons may require some recalibrating. But “it’s pretty darn good,” affirms even Benton, who usually prefers his whiskey unadulterated. Mezcal lovers won’t take much convincing. The smokiness is brighter rather than dense—it comes on early and strong but then rounds into a creamy mouthfeel, like cornflakes in cream. Jimmy Red is higher in fat content than standard corn, and that richness comes through. When kernels meet bacon, the result feels like a jubilant family reunion.