Food & Drink

Grain-to-Glass Whiskeys to Sip Now

Distillers in search of distinctive flavors are experimenting with heirloom and locally grown ingredients in their bourbons and other whiskeys. These recent releases bring a taste of place.

A bottle of bourbon with a partly filled glass on a table


High Wire Distilling Co.'s Jimmy Red bottled-in-bond bourbon.

Should you need any more proof the grain-to-glass movement is here to stay, look no further than Heaven Hill’s latest release. Back in 2017, the distillery quietly began laying down barrels of whiskey made with corn grown just across the road from its Bardstown, Kentucky, campus. Partnering with farmer Bernard Peterson of Peterson Farms and the multi-generational seed company Beck’s Hybrids, Heaven Hill plants about fifty acres annually with hybridized varietals of corn selected for their flavor and vigor. Each December, it then distills and barrels the harvested crops using three grain bills—a bourbon, a wheated bourbon, and a rye—and then it waits. “It’s like a science experiment,” Peterson says. “We’re trying different things to get different flavors.”

photo: Heaven Hill

The first results of that ongoing experiment debuted this June with the launch of Heaven Hill’s Grain to Glass collection, which showcases a particular corn varietal selected for that growing season. Available nationally though in limited quantities, the output is a relative drop in the bucket for the world’s largest family-owned distillery. So why go through the effort and expense?

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“Everything you do impacts the flavor of whiskey,” says Conor O’Driscoll, Heaven Hill’s master distiller. “By being selective about the grain—by building relationships with [farmers] and picking ones that grow well in Kentucky, will yield well, and have plenty of starch, it gives us the high-quality ingredients we need to make a high-quality product. You can taste it.”

In an age when producers can purchase endless bushels of commercially grown corn and barrels of ready-made bourbon, the idea that distinct ingredients matter has been gaining ground, especially among craft distillers looking to impart a taste of place to their whiskeys. Here are five more recent releases to try from distilleries focused on a back-to-the-land approach and the unique whiskeys that result.

Frey Ranch Farmers + Distillers, Fallon, Nevada

100% Wheat Whiskey Single Barrel

Colby Frey is the fifth generation to farm a 1,500-acre section of high-desert ranchland in northern Nevada that’s been in his family since 1854. He and his wife, Ashley, built a distillery on the property in 2006 to make whiskey from their grains and bolster the ranch’s viability for the next generation. Today, Frey Ranch Farmers + Distillers is recognized as a pioneer in American grain-to-glass distilling, using snowmelt collected from the neighboring Sierra Nevada mountains to irrigate the corn, wheat, rye, and barley grown onsite for its flagship four-grain bourbon and other whiskeys. Its latest release showcases the terroir of the farm’s soft white winter wheat. Bottled at cask strength, the all-wheat, single-barrel whiskey leads with flavors of cocoa powder and condensed milk dashed with cinnamon and cloves, with notes of caramel, orange peel, and marshmallow fluff on the nose. Frey Ranch has plans to increase both its acreage and maturation capacity, and recently expanded to the South with distribution to Texas and Georgia.

High Wire Distilling Co., Charleston, South Carolina

Jimmy Red Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

When the wife-and-husband team of Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell opened High Wire Distilling Co. in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013, they set out with a different approach than the big distilleries. “We needed to do something that would honor this place,” Marshall says. They distilled their first whiskey from sorghum, and intrigued by the results, they began delving into heirloom grains. With help from Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts, the couple identified a corn variety called Jimmy Red that was once popular with moonshiners and had since dwindled to near extinction. They then worked with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center to further explore the variety and grow a few acres. 

That enterprise has now expanded to include four partner farms in South Carolina that grow corn for the distillery’s signature Jimmy Red Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and this year High Wire launched its first year-round bottled-in-bond version. Made from 100 percent Jimmy Red corn, with a ruby-red hue and notes of earthy chocolate, spearmint, and orange zest, the bourbon is aged at least four years, bottled at 100 proof, and reflects the fruits of a single growing and distillation season. “Corn is very finicky,” Marshall says. “Every time you put a seed in the ground, the DNA changes and adapts, and that’s what makes it a magical crop.” 

Ironroot Republic Distillery, Denison, Texas

Harbinger 115 Cigar Blend Bourbon

Brothers Robert and Jonathan Likarish took inspiration from both traditional French brandy-making techniques and their native Texas when they launched Ironroot Republic in 2014. Élevage is a French concept that refers to “raising” wine and spirits from ground to maturity, as you would a child. “I really like that analogy because every barrel is unique,” says Jonathan, the head distiller. They, too, started experimenting with varieties of heirloom corn, test plots of which are still grown on their parents’ property in Denison (their mother, Marcia, is also part of the business) as well as in partnership with breeders at Texas A&M and Texas Tech. “We’ve distilled more than sixty types of grain so far,” Jonathan says, “the vast majority of them different types of corn.” 

Each variety is pot-distilled and aged individually, then used as a spice rack of sorts to blend with and flavor a base bourbon distilled from non-GMO Yellow Dent corn. Ironroot’s latest Cigar Blend, for example, includes four- to eight-year-old bourbons distilled from Purple, Bloody Butcher, Flint, and Magic Manna corn, which “smells like sugar cookies when it comes off the still,” Jonathan says, as well as some of the distillery’s first barrels of high-rye bourbon. The robust sipper amplifies the spicy gingerbread note found in Ironroot’s flagship Harbinger bourbon with layers of dark cherry, bready malt, and toasted oak.

Jeptha Creed, Shelbyville, Kentucky

6-Year Wheated Bourbon

Joyce Nethery thought about her patch of heirloom vegetables when she and her husband, Bruce, hatched a plan to start a distillery on their family’s farmland. “Would an heirloom corn likewise be more flavorful in making bourbon?” she wondered. In her research, she came across Bloody Butcher corn, a variety once prized by Appalachian moonshiners for its sweet, nutty flavor. The couple planted one-acre test plots of traditional Yellow Dent corn and Bloody Butcher, and Joyce realized she was on to something when she noticed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife passing right through the one patch to get at the ripe, crimson-red kernels. “They wouldn’t even touch the yellow corn,” she says.

A trained chemical engineer, Joyce opened Jeptha Creed Distillery along with her daughter, Autumn Nethery, in 2016. Bruce, a fifth-generation Kentucky farmer, planted more plots of Bloody Butcher across the family’s 2,000 acres and also tends to the fruit trees and bee hives used to make other spirits at the distillery. Jeptha Creed’s latest release, a six-year wheated bourbon, marks its oldest and most complex whiskey to date, distilled from 75 percent Bloody Butcher Corn, 20 percent malted wheat, and 5 percent malted barley. Bottled at 93 proof and tinged a light red, it has a floral and almond nose that carries over into the sip, with hints of honeycomb and raisin.

Bluegrass Distillers, Lexington, Kentucky

Blue Corn Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

A student intern then studying at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture first suggested blue corn to the whiskey makers at Lexington’s Bluegrass Distillers. After a small test batch, the distillery contracted with a local farmer to grow more acreage before releasing the first bottles of its Blue Corn Bourbon in 2017. The distillery then purchased the historic Elkwood Farm in Midway, Kentucky, planting fields of blue corn across its sixty-two acres, and in 2021 released its first bottled-in-bond version. The bourbon has gained a strong following with its distinctive notes of malted barley and caramel apple, with cinnamon, cooked pear, and a dry, nutty-chocolate flavor. This year the distillery completed the installation of a new thirty-six-inch column still and has renovated a circa-1835 farmhouse on the property into a visitor center that reflects the farm’s history.