Farm-to-Glass Distillery Embraces Heirloom Corn
November 15, 2018
Written By Callie Hanson
Most corn grown in fields these days is selected chiefly for its yield potential, but other factors such as disease tolerance, standability and maturity are important considerations. While a focus on these traits has led to bin-bursting harvests through the Heartland, it leaves something to be desired for whiskey makers like Gary Hinegardner, the man behind Wood Hat Spirits of New Florence, Mo.
Positioned on the outskirts of the Corn Belt, Hinegardner is distilling unique whiskeys and bourbons with a focus on heirloom corn varieties. While most whiskey produced in the United States uses yellow dent corn as its base ingredient, Hinegardner was convinced he could make a better tasting spirit by turning to the distinctive flavor profiles of heirloom corn. He knew the key to enhancing the taste of whiskey was to start with finding better tasting corn.
Hinegardner works with local farmers to procure throwback corn like Bloody Butcher, a variety characterized by deep-red striped kernels reminiscent of the blood on a butcher’s apron. Bloody Butcher has been grown in the United States since 1845.
“When you change the corn, you really change the whiskey,” Hinegardner says. “Each variety of corn has its own flavor, just like different types of grapes produce their own flavor of wine. Incorporating red, white and blue heirloom corn varieties really adds to the complexity of a whiskey.”
Wood Hat Spirits is one of the few distilleries in the nation to use Hopi blue corn, which is used to make its award-winning Aged Blue Corn Whiskey, the unique Bourbon Rubenesque, un-aged Blue Corn Whiskey, and All-American Red, White and Blue Corn Whiskey.
As a craft distillery, Wood Hat Spirits produces smaller batches of whiskey and bourbon than mass-market distillers. This gives Hinegardner more freedom to experiment in his hunt for better flavor profiles. He operates with the mentality that corn not tasty enough to be served on the dinner table is also unfit for whiskey production.
“We haven’t selected corn for taste in decades and the quality of whiskey has suffered,” Hinegardner says. “Corn isn’t what it used to be 40 years ago. Our grandparents ate a lot different corn and drank a lot different whiskey than what we are right now.”
He blames the pursuit of high-yielding commodity corn varieties for the decline in quality corn available for both table consumption and whiskey distilling. Farmers are paid by the bushel, not the flavor, so it’s easy to understand why higher-yielding varieties grew more popular than less-prolific heirloom varieties.
“Whiskey in the open-pollinated corn days had to be an all-around better tasting whiskey,” Hinegardner says.
In his quest to create rich new flavors, Hinegardner is looking far and wide for heirloom corn varieties he can grow locally to diversify Wood Hat Spirits product offerings. He’s looking at the possibility of bringing corn from Central and South America back to Missouri.
Drawing on his background as a former extension agronomist, Hinegardner is directly involved in sourcing the corn he uses to craft his spirits. With the goal of quality over quantity, he selectively breeds heritage varieties of corn to cultivate flavor profiles as unique as the wooden hats he’s known for fashioning and wearing.
Hinegardner holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy and taught sustainable agriculture practices in India for three years while working in the Peace Corps. It was there he grew to understand the value of making use of local natural resources. That philosophy has guided Hinegardner ever since he launched Wood Hat Spirits in 2013.
“I never understood why Missouri had an abundance of corn and the most sought-after barrel wood in the world, yet no stills,” Hinegardner says. “We sell Missouri corn and white oak at bottom prices to distilleries across the world for them to make a byproduct worth well over 100 times as much.”
Hinegardner saw his distillery as not only an opportunity to produce superior whiskey, but also a chance to add value to the local economy. Part of the reason he operates the only wood-fired still in the country is because of his proximity to one of the world’s largest stave companies. Hinegardner’s still is fueled by scrap wood from the nearby stave mill, and his barrels are crafted from high-quality, Missouri-grown white oak and pecan trees. Everything that goes into the business is locally sourced with the exception of the bottles.
He says the barrels, which add depth and flavor to his spirits, play a key role.
“There’s something magical that happens inside the barrels. Aging whiskey is all about the wood and the alcohol and their interactions.”
Wood Hat Spirits field-to-glass approach has garnered the distillery a well-earned reputation for quality, and Hinegardner’s creations have received numerous awards and praise from the American Craft Spirits Association and the American Distilling Institute, including a double gold medal and the distinction of best craft whiskey in the United States.
While Hinegardner has led the way for craft distilling in the Show-Me State, he encourages farmers to follow his lead.
“The most exciting part of my job is that I get to set an example for the agriculture community that adding value to their products is doable,” Hinegardner says. “I want to see more farmers start distilling because they can add value to their products and put money in their own pockets instead of someone else’s. Farmers have gotten the short end of the stick long enough, and I hope my work with Wood Hat Spirits can inspire farmers to consider how they can create their own value-added products and, ultimately, enrich the future of their families.”
Wood Hat Spirits, located at 489 Booneslick Road in New Florence, Mo., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday, except on Sundays when it opens at 1 p.m. For more information, visit woodhatspirits.com or call (573) 216-3572. You can also find Wood Hat Spirits on Facebook and Twitter.