Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Old Gristmill Corn Whiskey

Corn whiskey is a much neglected segment of the American whiskey market. Often likened to backwoods moonshine, corn whiskey tends to be marketed to those nostalgic for prohibition. The two leading brands, Platte Valley and Georgia Moon, are packaged in a ceramic jug and a mason jar respectively. The message is clear: this is your grandpa's whiskey, if you grandpa was Jed Clampett.

But what is corn whiskey?

Corn whiskey is a whiskey produced from a mix of grains made up of at least 80% corn. Unlike Bourbon, another corn-based whiskey, corn whiskey need not be aged or stored in wood. If it is stored in wood, it must be stored in used or new uncharred oak whereas Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak.

For years, corn whiskey did not see much growth, and up until a year or two ago, Heaven Hill made nearly all the corn whiskey on the market. With the onset of the craft distilling movement, however, there is a whole new set of corn whiskies on the market from start-up distillers. Corn whiskey is particularly appealing to microdistillers because they can release it without the time necessary for ageing, which gives them the potential to turn a profit while their other whiskies rest in the barrel.

Today, I will be sampling Old Gristmill corn whiskey from the Tuthilltown microdistillery in upstate New York. Old Gristmill is made from 100% Hudson Valley corn.


Old Gristmill Authentic American Corn Whiskey, 40% abv, Tuthilltown ($30).

The first thing I notice about Old Gristmill is its color, or lack thereof. It is completely colorless. This is, of course, expected of an unaged whiskey, and I suppose to a vodka or gin drinker, it wouldn't be a big deal, but I'm used to brown spirits. I'm not often sipping something that could be mistaken for water.

The nose comes on sweet with a Tequila scent. I also smell grapes and that raw, sweet smell of unaged spirit. Because of my own preconceptions about corn whiskey, when I taste it, I brace for harshness, but what I get is far from harsh. The whiskey is smooth, with hardly any burn at all, and slightly sweet. It still tastes more like Tequila to me than whiskey, and certainly moreso than Bourbon. Late in the palate there are citrus notes as well, which are common to very young whiskies. Then, on the finish, there's the corn, buttered popcorn to be exact, very subtle but present nonetheless.

This is my first corn whiskey and it's certainly been one of the more interesting tastings, in large part because I had no idea what to expect. I have always associated corn whiskey with neutral flavored firewater, but this is a subtle and flavorful spirit, though I wouldn't call it complex.

I will continue to drink it neat, though I think I appreciate it more as an academic exercise, a window into whiskey and what it tastes like prior to ageing, than a purely pleasurable experience. It does seem to have the potential to be highly adaptable; my mind swirls with ideas: Corn Margaritas? Corn Mojitos?

Old Gristmill is not yet available in California, but other Tuthilltown products are starting to appear here so perhaps we will see it soon.

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