September 17, 2019
Now in year three, we’re finally getting a taste
Three years ago, Heaven Hill Distillery embarked on one of the most ambitious projects in our eighty-plus year history: Grain to Glass. To continually innovate and create one-of-a-kind whiskeys that only we can produce, we returned to the most fundamental element of the production process: the seed.
Each year, we collaborate with Beck’s Hybrids, a family-owned seed supplier, to discover unique strains of corn that are optimal for whiskey production, selecting for both yield and flavor. They’re planted on a family-owned farm located directly across the street from our Bardstown headquarters. Once the stalks are brown and the kernels are dry, the corn is harvested and brought to our Bernheim distillery to be mashed, fermented, and distilled in ultra-small batches. Once barreled, the whiskeys are aged at our Cox’s Creek Barrel Preserve, which gets excellent natural airflow due to its location atop rolling hills. We monitor the barrels closely to see how they develop.
How long will they age? Only time will tell. The whiskeys will let us know when they’re ready.
Every spring, we select a different corn seed to serve as a basis for our specialty mashbills.
In year one, we used Becks 6158, which has characteristics that grow well in Kentucky. This corn had never been sold to a distillery before, making it the first time it had ever been cooked and distilled into whiskey.
Year two inspired us to try a “waxy” corn seed. This type of corn is 99% amylopectin starch versus regular dent corn, which is about 75% amylopectin and 25% amylose. Amylopectin is completely water soluble, while amylose is not, which means all of the starches are able to be cooked out into the mash.
In year three, our seed of choice was Becks 6269, which was selected for variables that grow especially well in Bardstown, KY where Heaven Hill is headquartered. The seed was grown at farms just down the road from our Bourbon Heritage Center. According to Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll, this seed has “more starch than regular dent corn, but a ‘soft’ starch which makes the grain not have a lot of flavor. Therefore, the final product will carry more flavor of the other grains being used to produce the liquid.”
CONOR’S TASTING JOURNAL
Of course, the real importance of these specially selected grains are: how do they contribute to flavor?
Each harvest season, we created three different mashbills to best feature these unique seeds: a high-rye Bourbon, a high-wheat Wheated Bourbon, and a high-rye Rye Whiskey. Conor O’Driscoll recently thieved a sample from Cox’s Creek to see how they were maturing. Here’s what he had to say about the 2017 distillation, which has now been aging just over two years.
“These very small batch whiskeys are a fun departure from our regular production schedule. For this first set, the new make distillates were all very distinctive and it’s fascinating to see how each one is maturing in its own unique way.”
The rye really comes through on both the nose and the pallet. Pleasant grassy and dried hay notes with a rye spice finish starting to develop. This bourbon has mellowed a lot in its first two years of aging but has quite a ways to go before it is ready to bottle.
High-Wheat Wheated Bourbon
Already starting to mellow nicely, but still very young. Lots of barrel character on the nose. Very distinctive yeast/bread notes (no surprise there with the high wheat content.) The smooth, gentle character of a wheated Bourbon is very evident, especially when tasted next to its high rye cousins.
High-Rye Rye Whiskey
A big, bold whiskey already! There is a lot of rye character blowing up here, full of all kinds of peppers and spices. Of the three, this one will probably have to age the longest to allow everything to mellow out but it already has the makings of a very fine whiskey.
O’Driscoll is enthusiastic to watch these special whiskeys mature, and to see what the next harvest season will bring. “We are now in the third year of the Grain To Glass program and we continue to innovate with unique corn hybrids, and other locally-grown grains to develop an exciting range of whiskeys that showcase our craftsmanship and passion for this project.”