Corn whiskeys are often assumed to be either low quality, moonshine, or both. Understandably, whiskey devotees generally overlook the category entirely. But it’s time to take a closer look. Today more distilleries are releasing high quality corn whiskeys to the market—a welcome change for this oft-forgotten category.
CORN WHISKEY DEFINED
So what exactly is corn whiskey then? And how does it differ from moonshine—let alone bourbon, a whiskey that must be a made from a mash bill with a majority share of corn?
Corn for Wood Hat’s All American Whiskey / Photo Credit: Wood Hat Spirits
First, there are two key components to the TTB’s (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau) definition of corn whiskey:
– It must contain a minimum of 80% corn in its mash bill.
– If aged, it must be kept in either used or uncharred oak barrels.
The second component is perhaps even more important than the first. With the 80% corn mash bill requirement, a high-corn or all-corn bourbon would also be categorized as a corn whiskey. However, all bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak containers. That is an important distinction. The maturation requirements here are specifically used as a mechanism to draw an impassable boundary between the two categories.
While it’s possible that a bourbon and a corn whiskey can share the same exact mash bill, whiskey can never be classified as both at the same time. Further, the above requirements allow for corn whiskey to be bottled without undergoing any maturation in oak.
IS CORN WHISKEY THE SAME AS MOONSHINE?
The easiest way to answer that question is to say, well, it depends. In a previous story, we looked to define moonshine. The closest we came is to say it’s a pot-distilled, unaged whiskey, likely made from all or mostly corn, and potentially including sugar and flavorings.
A glass of Wood Hat whiskey / Photo Credit: Wood Hat Spirits
More to the point though, moonshine truly refers to an illegally made spirit, and as such, has no strict definition. This is why you will never see ACTUAL moonshine on a retail shelf or behind a bar. If you choose to, you can consider unaged corn whiskey that is bottled and sold in liquor stores today as a legal version of moonshine.
EXPLORING CORN WHISKEYS
Perhaps the first corn whiskey to change our perception of the category was Balcones Baby Blue. The debut product from the now famous Texas distillery is made entirely from a special variety of blue corn. Aged in used barrels, it offers a rich, sweet and surprising palate.
Another producer currently making whiskey waves in the corn category is Mexico’s Sierra Norte. The distillery is located in Oaxaca, the spiritual home of mezcal, yet makes a range of corn whiskeys showcasing different varieties of local corn.
Sierra Norte produces whiskey from native yellow corn, white corn, and black corn varieties. And to showcase how the corn itself accounts for flavor, the corn variety itself is the only changing production variable for the whiskeys. Each begins with a mash bill of 85% corn and 15% malted barley which is double distilled in a copper pot still. Each then matures in a single barrel of French oak for approximately 10 months.
Wood Hat Spirits
Also exciting is the lineup of corn whiskey from Wood Hat Spirits. The one which has gathered the most acclaim is the brand’s Bloody Butcher Red, a cask strength corn whiskey made from a revived heirloom varietal of corn, matured in toasted barrels. Wood Hat also makes both a Blue Corn and an All American (red, white and blue corn varieties) corn whiskey, each sold in unaged and aged versions.
Bloody Butcher Corn
Of course, we mustn’t forget Heaven Hill’s Mellow Corn. It is—for now at least—the only bottled-in-bond corn whiskey on the market. This means it is aged a minimum of four years, is bottled at 100 proof, and is the product of one distillery from one season. Widely available (and affordable), this is a great way to get introduced to the category.
A few more for you thirsty explorers:
– In Frederick, Maryland, Tenth Ward Distilling offers another unique twist with a smoked corn whiskey. The mash bill is comprised of 80% smoked corn with 20% malted barley, bringing hints of smoky mezcal and peaty Scotch whisky to its unaged corn whiskey.
– Myer Farm Distillers produces White Dog Corn Whiskey, made entirely from organic corn grown on their farm.
– Back where we started in Texas, Ironroot Republic offers Ironroot Hubris, a straight 100% corn whiskey, meaning it’s been matured for a minimum of two years. It’s bottled at cask strength. The brand also has an unaged corn whiskey called Carpenter’s Bluff Moonshine, made from an heirloom red corn variety.