Texas Distiller and Crop Scientist Look for New Corn Strain for Improved Whiskey Production

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In an effort to develop commercially viable corn strains having identifiable flavors, a crop scientist and a master distiller are in the midst of a project at Texas A&M University which could make the entire state of Texas as synonymous with whiskey as the Texas Hill Country is with wine.

Seth Murray and Rob Arnold are in the process of trying to develop corn varietals that could make a whiskey drinker reflect on where and how a drink is produced much in the way that a type of grape defines a wine’s taste. If the project proves successful, the pair may not see a commercial whiskey produced from the corn until the middle of the next decade (the norm for their industry), but they feel it’s well worth that time and their effort. Having produced approximately 50 test product, they’re looking at planting thousands of their non-genetically modified seeds over a number of months in order to increase production.

Texas Distiller and Crop Scientist Look for New Corn Strain for Improved Whiskey Production

Photo: Facebook/Balcones Distillery

In the current market, the majority of big-name distillers throughout the US are making their whiskey with yellow corn types which are comparable and are grown from seeds that were designed for high yields in the Midwest. “We were missing all the unique flavors that can live in corn varieties,” explained Arnold, who is working on a doctorate at Texas A&M while maintaining his post as the top distiller at Firestone & Robertson – self-identifying as the largest whiskey distiller west of the Mississippi. Arnold and Murray’s project is being financed by this distiller.

Texas Distiller and Crop Scientist Look for New Corn Strain for Improved Whiskey Production

Photo: Facebook/Garrison Brothers Distillery

At present, there has been a reported $3.4 billion in 2017 revenues for distillers, having sold more than 23 million nine-liter cases of whiskey, made in the USA. Being one of the more popular types of American whiskey, bourbon is derived from a grain mash which is anywhere between 51 and 80 percent corn, then stored in charred oak barrels. Therefore, the only way companies distinguish their flavors from those of others is through barrel-aging and the use of yeasts in fermentation. Arnold and Murray are working to change that limited option by working with North American heirlooms and corn varieties from Latin America. The pair has stated that in recent years, some of the major distillers as well as small batch producers have tried to make whiskey from heirloom corns, but while they can produce unique taste compounds, their crop yields are roughly one-eighth of today’s hybrid, which makes commercial viability questionable. Soon enough, through this team’s efforts, there may one day be a whiskey terroir of unbelievable capacity, that will make the taster reflect on what region of the state their drink came from, such as the Texas Hill Country. And it will all owe to what type of corn was used.