Beyond Yellow Corn: Alternative Whiskey GrainsBy Matt Strickland
As consumers of spirituous libations, we can sometimes be a bit myopic when it comes to ingredient selection for whiskey. Most whiskeys on the market are composed of one or more of the big four: corn (maize for our friends outside the U.S.), wheat, rye and malted barley. Often this is because of tradition coupled with regional regulations. For example, single malt scotch must be produced with malted barley. While bourbon is legally made with at least 51% corn, and the remainder is a traditional combination of rye, wheat or barley.
Of course, there are always going to be producers working on the fringes of the category. Those who are constantly exploring ways to kick corn flour in the face of tradition. Particularly in the U.S., our laws regarding whiskey production have some rickhouse sized loopholes which allow for loads of leeway. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the alternative whiskey grains that have been used in recent years to produce some of the more interesting whiskeys on the market.
Oats aren’t exactly new to whiskey distilling. This small husk-less grain was used in Ireland and Scotland for uisge beatha production hundreds of years ago. This was well before the industry got all fancy with things like sherry casks and legal permits.
Today, oats have been given new life in a handful of American whiskeys. The alternative whiskey grain has a comparatively high fat and beta-glucan content. Subsequently it can be challenging to work with in the distillery. However, those who persevere are rewarded with a whiskey that has an impressively fat and round mouthfeel, even at young ages. Koval in Chicago uses a mash of 100% oats in its oat whiskey. This makes for an impressively creamy spirit buoyed by well-integrated oak character.
The monoculture that is yellow corn grown throughout the U.S. shows no remorse in its own ubiquity. It’s everywhere and in everything from fuel, to foodstuffs, to plastics. When it comes to yellow corn and its kudzu-like spread throughout American culture, there are plenty of critics.
Unsurprisingly, yellow dent corn is the primary corn used in whiskey production. However, there are a few folks pushing for the expanded flavors of unique and heritage varieties of corn. Corn actually comes in a myriad of colors and subsequent flavors since these different varieties contain an assortment of proteins and flavonoids.
Take Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas and the brand’s Baby Blue corn whiskey. A traditional corn whiskey, this ain’t. Made with roasted blue corn it has a rich and buttery nose with loads of estery fruit character. Both High Wire Distilling (Charleston, SC) and Jeptha Creed Distillery (Shelbyville, KY) have experimented with red corns, in Jimmy Red and Bloody Butcher, respectively. These are hard-sought whiskeys with intense and focused corn characters—well worth the effort of tracking down a bottle.
Apart from the Whole Foods obsessive health food set, a lot of folks have never experienced the joys of quinoa. Quinoa is a tiny spherical grain that is a staple food in certain parts of South America. It is high in healthy protein and has a unique nutty flavor to it.
Mashing quinoa due to its diminutive size makes working with it somewhat challenging. It also requires rinsing prior to use because the seed coat has a layer of bitter tasting compounds.
The only whiskey distillery to make significant use of this alternative whiskey grain is Corsair Distillery in Nashville, TN. Its Quinoa Whiskey contains a mere 20% quinoa by weight in the mash bill, but the grain is so chock full of flavor that 20% is plenty. This interesting dram has a unique nutty and toasty flavor to it that is unlike any other whiskey. Unfortunately bottles of this oddity are getting harder to find. If you stumble across one, grab it while you can.
Is it Triti-Kale, Triti-Kalee, or Triti-Cal?
Triticale is a hybrid of two commonly used whiskey grains: wheat and rye. Triticale was bred to have the disease tolerance of rye, combined with the yield and quality of wheat. In the process of whiskey-making, rye tends to provide spice and wheat gives softness. These two things might sound at odds with one another, but as we know from the various four grain bourbons out there, they work in a complementary fashion.
Indeed, this is what happens when triticale is used in whiskey. Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, Washington makes a lovely straight triticale whiskey. It has plenty of rye spice for the rye-obsessed but finishes with wheat’s characteristic softness.
Would that we could, there are so many other alternative whiskey grains that we just don’t have the space to cover here. Grains such as buckwheat, roasted grains, amaranth, teff, spelt and rice have all shown up in tumblers over the past decade. And it’s not just the small guys who are getting in on the action. Jim Beam has released limited bottlings of bourbons using brown rice, oats and triticale. There are certainly a lot more grains to explore and the coming years are sure to expose more of the alternative flavor spectrum to a thirsty audience.
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