May 20, 2021
From Label To Liquid, Mellow Corn Straight Corn Whiskey Is History In A Bottle
Have you ever tasted Mellow Corn Straight Corn Whiskey?
Or, perhaps better asked: Have you even heard of Mellow Corn, that delicious, lightly sweet, golden-hued Bottled-in-Bond beauty known as “the bartender’s handshake?”
Despite its creation in 1945, generations of drinkers know next to nothing about it. According to Jack Choate, Heaven Hill’s Western U.S. Whiskey Educator, few can tie Mellow Corn’s unique yellow, red and green label to its name until they see a bottle.
“They see it and say either, ‘WHAT is that?’ or ‘What is THAT?’” said Choate. “Once I get them to taste it, they understand.”
A HUMBLE HAND-ME-DOWN BECOMES TRENDY
Medley Distilling Co. in Owensboro, Ky., created Mellow Corn 76 years ago, but it came to Heaven Hill’s portfolio in 1993 in a multi-brand acquisition deal with United Distillers. In the transaction, UD offered up legends like Old Fitzgerald, Dubonnet and Grand Canadian, brands Heaven Hill President Max Shapira really wanted. But when he saw Mellow Corn on the list, he recalled asking, “‘You want us to take this, too?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, throw it in.’ And we bought it. I promise you that I’m not exaggerating too much; it was that matter of fact.”
Despite new ownership, the Mellow Corn brand didn’t change. It remained on lower shelves in existing markets while Heaven Hill weaved the whiskey’s bottling and distillation into its production cycles. At that time, Shapira was content to let Mellow Corn remain a lesser-known brand “since it was brand new to us, and we knew little about it. It wasn’t a big seller, but it was taking care of itself. And we were fine with that.”
Twenty-eight years later, the strategy hasn’t changed a lot. Yet its popularity is rising among bartenders and drinkers ever curious about historic brands like Mellow Corn.
“The bartending industry likes to latch on to weird little outliers like Mellow Corn,” said Morgan Schick, Hospitality Consultant with There There Co. in Portland, Ore. “We like to pour it for our friends who appreciate something different, and I think it’s gotten a lot of industry creds that way.”
At the time Schick and his team discovered Mellow Corn, they were slashing the number of allocated bottles on Trick Dog bar’s American Whiskey list. Their search led them to “these little heritage brands that are cheap, delicious and idiosyncratic—the ones we like to find,” he said. “When we tasted Mellow Corn, we all were like, ‘This is delicious!’ We started running it as our house shot-and-a-beer special that we called High and Mellow, since the beer was Miller High Life®.”
Being in the know about Mellow Corn can also make people feel like insiders. “You feel like you’re part of a club when you know about it or when you drink it,” said Jessi Lorraine, a Hospitality Professional and Consultant based in San Francisco, Calif.
What she’s seen in the Bay Area is that the local hipster community loves Mellow Corn because while it’s traditional in its own right, it doesn’t follow traditions on what a whiskey should look like. It’s punchy, strong, bizarre and even a little outside the box. But Lorraine said that’s why it works and why people are drawn to it. And even with the love for the aesthetic, it still speaks for itself in the glass. “It delivers,” she said. “It’s going to deliver every time you open the bottle. You’re going to get something that’s just as exciting drinking it as you feel when you’re looking at the bottle or talking about the brand.”
Mellow Corn also has found a niche fanbase in the subreddit whiskey community r/MellowCorn, created in 2020 by Anthony Bearhs. While riding out the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, he was sipping Mellow Corn and suddenly was moved to write his first whiskey review.
“I reviewed it because I really enjoy it, not because I wanted attention,” said Bearhs, now known to those on r/MellowCorn as Corn Daddy. “I had no idea anyone else would read it, but they did.”
A year later, r/MellowCorn has grown to nearly 2.5k followers. Bearhs said the group is made up of whiskey drinkers who are tired of whiskey hype and high prices that sends them hunting for whiskey bargains.
“For us, Mellow Corn is also a symbol of rebellion,” Bearhs said. “It’s the punk rock of whiskey. It’s a symbol that says we’re not going to be snobs about this stuff.”
Bearhs likened Mellow Corn’s trendy popularity to Pabst Blue Ribbon’s® blue-collar comeback during the craft beer boom of the last 20 years.
“As craft beer grew bigger, the people who just liked beer, in all permutations, rebelled against the mainstream culture and stuck to classic brands that delivered great bang for your buck,” he said.
His group’s respect for Mellow Corn also is high because it’s not promoted by paid social influencers.
“Mellow Corn is the symbol, but the message is practical: drink good spirits, and don’t fall for what everyone else is doing,” he said.
MIX IT UP!
Because of rising bartender interest in Mellow Corn, it’s appearing in cocktails more and more often. Lynn House, National Spirits Specialist and Portfolio Mixologist for Heaven Hill, called Mellow Corn a versatile and easy mixer that plays well with other spirits. Her favorite creation is The Moby, a combination of Mellow Corn, Hpnotiq (a liqueur that blends vodka, cognac, and fruit juices), fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and hard cider.
“It’s a modern twist on a whiskey sour … and it’s got this funky green color that gets people’s attention,” House said.
Schick uses Mellow Corn in place of gin or vodka in a Collins cocktail (see recipe below) and substitutes it for tequila in a Paloma. Bearhs swaps out Mellow Corn for Bourbon in an Old Fashioned, and Choate bumps out the Bourbon in a Boulevardier in favor of his favorite Corn Whiskey.
“Use the same 1 to 1 to 1 recipe for a Boulevardier, only insert Mellow Corn,” Choate said. “It’s a favorite of mine.”
While House said cocktails are a great way to introduce people to Mellow Corn, she’s still a fan of a generous neat pour of the nation’s oldest surviving Corn Whiskey.
“This is something that’s fun to turn your friends on to because it’s truly unique and something you don’t readily find,” House said. “For me, I get to tell the most authentic story about it when I pour it for somebody.”
Shapira said his affinity for Mellow Corn is tied primarily to its history, not its looks. But over the years when Heaven Hill’s marketing department suggested the packaging be updated, Shapira protested.
“People occasionally say that the label needs to be updated and revived,” he revealed. “But I see it as part of the charm of the whole brand. So what if somebody said it looks like the 1950s? So what if somebody derides it for its big yellow label? I like it because it’s old, untouched, not revised. We decided long ago that we’re not going to touch this thing.”
House called it a “crazy, campy, old-school label that I’m glad we’re not touching. The label is one that doesn’t take itself seriously. It reflects the juice inside, and that juice is fun.”
“I’m a sucker for those old Heaven Hill labels—Mellow Corn, JTS Brown, JW Dant, TW Samuels,” he said. “They represent the history of the American Whiskey industry to me and a lot of people.”
Bernie Lubbers, Global Brand Ambassador for Heaven Hill, is a fan of the Mellow Corn package as is.
“The whole thing pops on the shelf—bright as a John Deere tractor,” Lubbers said. “You see lots of deep green and flashy gold on labels, but you don’t see yellows, reds, and greens that bright, or at least very often…And talk about not changing anything. The label still has the Medley family crest on it.”
Lubbers said Mellow Corn also has its own cool factor within Heaven Hill’s business model: Though its marketing is minimally funded, the brand continues to grow.
“We don’t even promote Mellow Corn, but it gets lots of word of mouth,” he said. He added that such personal endorsements are likely why bartenders are adopting it readily. “They like that because then it’s credible.”
While not a full-fledged promotion, on April 1, 2021, Heaven Hill Distillery did launch a Mellow Corn account on Instagram. But even with that particular launch date and the account’s dedication to corny content, it’s no joke. “We saw the love this fanbase had for the brand and we wanted to be connected to the community,” said Max Stefka, Senior Brand Manager at Heaven Hill.
Shapira views Mellow Corn similarly to other historic brands acquired by Heaven Hill. Brands like Rittenhouse Rye and Pikesville Rye were dying on the vine when the company scooped them up decades ago, but Heaven Hill bought them for their heritage and potential, he said. Happily, he’s gotten to witness some of those old brands’ renewals and the sales booms that followed.
“Sometimes these brands came to us by accident or acquisition, other times by serendipity,” Shapira said. “Once we took them on, we’d see their glorious histories and some unrecognized equity in them. And we thought that if we kept them on the shelves in limited areas, we’d get the opportunity to reestablish them. That’s happened for a number of those.”
Shapira isn’t surprised when outsiders question a business model that coddles old and little-known brands that rarely grow explosively. But he said that that’s the beauty of a privately held business that isn’t beholden to shareholders. If his family wants a brand because it’s historic and unique, it doesn’t need to ask permission.
“Most industries are about discovery, about finding something unique nobody has,” Shapira said. “And Straight Corn Whiskey is one of those things. It’s not a big subcategory, but it appeals to those with a sort of creative DNA—people who want to develop an interesting product into something of their own, like mixologists do. To have brands like these in our portfolio shows who we are as a company.”
What’s Corn Whiskey?
Corn Whiskey is made from a mash bill of no less than 80 percent corn, distilled no higher than 160° proof, barreled at no higher than 125° proof, and stored in either used charred oak containers or new uncharred oak containers.
By Lynn House
- 1 oz. Mellow Corn Straight Corn Whiskey
- 1 oz. Hpnotiq
- ½ oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ oz. simple syrup
- 2 ozs. hard apple cider such as Ace or Angry Orchard
- Crushed ice
Combine the first four ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 15-20 seconds until well chilled.
Fill Collins glass with crushed ice, then pour shaker’s contents over ice. Fill remainder of glass with cider. Add straw and stir briefly to integrate cider, or skip straw to leave cider as a float.
Mellow Corn Collins
By Morgan Schick
- 2 ozs. Mellow Corn Straight Corn Whiskey
- ¾ oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
- ¾ oz. simple syrup
- Dash of absinthe
- Club soda or high quality ginger ale
Add to a mixing glass whiskey, lemon, simple syrup, and absinthe. Add ice and stir until chilled.
To a Collins, glass add fresh ice and pour liquids into the glass, stir briefly before following with soda, poured to the top. Garnish with lemon wedge or expressed peel.