Corn is king, especially in summer, because that’s when it’s fully ripe and tastes best. For those who don’t know, corn isn’t a vegetable, it’s an annual grass, technically classified as zea mays (maize). Corn fits into the scientific family Gramineae, along with wheat, barley, rye, rice and sugar cane, all of which are used somewhere in the production of whiskey.
Prior to Prohibition, rye whiskey was the preeminent whiskey in the United States. When repeal came in 1933, the whiskey that returned in force was corn-based bourbon. Bourbon was king (and the Bourbons were kings, first of France and later of Spain) for a number of reasons, the most prominent being that it was cheaper to make. It’s still cheaper to make today, with corn at little more than half the price of rye on average.
Unlike rye, wheat and malt whiskey, which are self-explanatory, bourbon is corn whiskey, legally at least 51% corn. However, the fact is that much bourbon is flavored with rye, barley or even wheat, and sometimes, as is the case with Pappy Van Winkle, with all of them, whereas many rye, malt or wheat whiskeys are pushing 100% of their namesake grain.
Until recently, rarely did you see high-percentage corn whiskeys outside of the white whiskey or “moonshine” category, neither of which ever represented quality in the minds of most consumers. In fact, the legal definitions for “corn whiskey,” in particular, go on for some 14 categories, as opposed to one each for Irish, Canadian and scotch.
Low corn percentage bourbon might still be king, in terms of sales, if you include Jack Daniels (technically a “Tennessee” whiskey, but which, legally, must first start out adhering to the rules of bourbon). However a newer smaller batch of high-percentage corn whiskeys is cropping up, some staying in the bourbon lane but many straying outside, proving that taste or quality is often not legally definable.
With that thought in mind, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling three of these newer “corn whiskeys” for your perusal, all localized.
• Savage and Cooke Second Glance American Whiskey, $40, Vallejo: Made from a mash of 95% corn, 4% rye and 1% malted barley, this American whiskey is aged five years in used bourbon barrels and then finished in used cabernet sauvignon barrels. Founded by Dave Phinney, the man originally behind the Prisoner Wine Co. (and its shelf standout labeling), Savage and Cooke makes distilled spirits on the former Naval base of Mare Island. This whiskey drinks hotter than its 88 proof would suggest. And even though it’s more than twice the age required for straight bourbon, its corn-based cabernet-finished mouthfeel is fairly aggressive. Baking spice, graham cracker and butterscotch are all present. And there’s a decidedly sherry/Madeira/winey finish. Great in a whiskey-forward cocktail like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, where the goal is tasting the whiskey, not disguising it.
For more information, go to savageandcooke.com.
• Bender’s 8-year-old Old Corn Whiskey, $65, Treasure Island: The bottle says eight years, but owner Chris Cohen insists that it is actually a 9-year-old whiskey made from 100% corn. And Cohen should know, he’s been at the whiskey game on Treasure Island since 2012, where he and distiller Carl Bender first made their name in rye whiskey and later in wheat. Distilled in Alberta, Canada, where much WhistlePig rye whiskey is also distilled, the original high-proof whiskey is brought to Treasure Island where it is blended with Hetch Hetchy water and then aged. That aging is done in used bourbon barrels and Hoffmeister barrels (from Missouri) and creates a creamy, vanillin-rich, orange peel explosion of toffee and spice, which virtually annihilates the myth of corn whiskey being soft. Bottled at 90 proof, this whiskey is great over a large cube or swirled in a snifter.
For more information, go to benderswhiskey.com.
• Barber Lee Spirits Heirloom Corn Straight Bourbon Whiskey, $65, Petaluma: Distiller Aaron Lee once told me he didn’t make this bourbon because it was easy, but because it was difficult. If wine gets its distinction from different grapes, can the same be said of bourbon? As it turns out, yes. Eschewing yellow dent No. 2 (the base corn for 99% of all bourbon whiskey), Lee opts for the non-GMO varietals Bloody Butcher and Hopi Blue, sourced from California’s Central Valley. Using small kernel heirloom corn has some production disadvantages, but its taste is singularly interesting. While typical bourbon is often described as “sweet,” this bourbon comes across as spicy (similar to rye) with hints of hot chilies, earthiness, smoke and somewhat ironically, buckwheat. The only straight bourbon on this list, it is 90 proof, and the mash bill also includes some rye, as well as malted barley. Certainly not your grandpa’s (or your grandma’s) bourbon, and that is a good thing, especially when it comes to quality.
For more information, go to barberleespirits.com.