Meet the farmers who grow the grains that make some of the country’s top whiskeys.
It’s midafternoon on one of the final weekends of summer, and many of the residents of the small farming community of Alamosa, Colorado, have gathered at the Colorado Malting Company’s headquarters to celebrate the upcoming barley harvest. Called the Gerste Gemütlichkeit or “barley party” in German, the annual event is one of the last days of the year that the farmers can relax before heading into waist-deep fields of grain and working from dawn to dusk harvesting their bounty.
The day of the celebration turns out to be a scorcher. Pockets of people gather beneath the protective shield of an outstretched canopy to dodge the blazing August sun, while others clutch Solo cups filled with beer or two fingers worth of whiskey and tour the largest craft malting facility in the United States.
Much of the two-row Scarlett barley and Centennial soft white wheat that CMC grows and malts is sold to Colorado breweries (it counts the New Belgium Brewing Company and Oskar Blues as two of its clients). However, over the past several years, it has seen a shift in its clientele to include distilleries, too, like Spirit Hound Distillers and Laws Whiskey House, both based in Colorado.
This confluence of distilled beverages is not a coincidence. Barley is a fairly common crop in the United States, with the U.S. Grains Council listing the country as one of the top global barley exporters. But Colorado’s fertile soil, warm climate, and lack of rain — the latter of which helps reduce the threat of mold — make for some of the finest barley in the country. A discovery that Raymond “Pappy” Coody, who settled in Alamosa with his family back in the 1930s, soon made.
Today the 130-acre farm is still owned and operated by the Cody family (they dropped the second “o” in the surname in the ’40s), which includes Wayne, grandson of Raymond, and his three grown sons, Jason, Joshua, and Bobby, who manage the day-to-day operations. After decades of growing barley for mega-brewer Coors, in 2008 the Codys decided to give malting a shot and converted the property’s old dairy barn into a malting facility. Rather than purchase pricey equipment that is only available in Europe, they built their own machinery, even having a local fabricator on call to work out any kinks. The in-state demand alone grew the operation like a weed, and in 2014 CMC malted approximately 1.2 million pounds of barley, double what it had done the previous year.
Wayne takes a break from the barley party to take me on a tour of the property’s 100 planted acres. As we push our way through the golden waves of grain, which softly rustle in the breeze, he occasionally crouches down to check for signs of mold (there are none). The quality of the crop clearly speaks for itself, as CMC has never had to advertise. “Our customers learn about us through word of mouth,” Wayne says.
This is how Craig Engelhorn, head distiller of Spirit Hound Distillers in Lyons, Colorado, discovered the outfit. Since the company was founded in 2012, he’s had a standing order for CMC malt.
“When we started the distillery, we wanted to make a 100-percent Colorado product,” Engelhorn says. “It’s cool that we source everything right from our backyard — even if it’s four hours away, it’s still from Colorado.”
Engelhorn uses CMC’s base and crystal malts in his White Dog Moonshine, and a specialty peat-smoked malt for his straight-malt whiskey. “It honors the peat-smoked character in the Scotch tradition,” he says. With plans to release the straight-malt whiskey later this year, Engelhorn has been working closely with CMC to perfect exactly how much the custom barley is smoked before shipping.
“One of the benefits of working with a small, family-run business is that if I want to change the smokiness of the barley, I just pick up the phone and call and it’s done,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to get that kind of love from the big guys.”
It should come as no surprise that farming and distilling go hand in hand, especially since grains play the starring role in so many spirits. Hundreds of years ago, farmers served as some of the country’s original distillers, turning their excess grains into whiskey instead of letting their bounty go to waste. Due to numerous laws and regulations passed over the years, it’s no longer feasible for them to play the roles of farmer and distiller. But thanks to an influx in the popularity of whiskey and other liquors in the United States, farmers can still play a pivotal role in the supply chain.
After all, the end product is only as good as the ingredients used to make it. This is something Troy Ball, owner and master distiller of Asheville Distilling Company in Asheville, North Carolina, knows well. After hearing word several years back about Crooked Creek corn, a variety of white corn that was believed to be extinct since 1840, she befriended John McEntire of Peaceful Valley Farm, the last known farmer in the area still growing it. At one time, multiple families in the area relied on the corn for sustenance, using it as a main ingredient in meals and — quite possibly — moonshine.
With a few ears of corn in hand, Ball visited the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville and had scientists conduct specimen analyses.
“The person running the test looked at the computer’s final printout and said, ‘This can’t be correct,’ ” Ball says. “So he put in another ear and got the same exact result. He’d never seen numbers like those before.”
It turns out that Crooked Creek corn is higher in fat than other varietals. For the next year Ball experimented and distilled the white corn alongside yellow corn, but the end result was clear: White corn was the way to go.
“Higher fat is where the flavor is at,” Ball says. “Historically, people ate white corn and fed their animals yellow corn. It’s also what most moonshiners used to make whiskey back in the day.”
With that knowledge in hand, she set up a deal to buy Crooked Creek corn from McEntire, but as demand for her Blonde Whiskey, Troy & Sons Platinum Moonshine, and Troy & Sons Oak Reserve grew, Ball knew she would need to increase the volume of corn grown. Despite several failed attempts at introducing the corn to other farmland throughout North Carolina, she soon learned that it only thrived in the mountainous region surrounding Asheville, which enjoys cool summer nights and warm summer days. The corn consequently costs more to produce, but Ball says the results trump the cost.
“It’s worth the extra effort and makes the whiskey special,” she says.
Another, albeit larger, whiskey operation that takes special care in the grains it uses is Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, located an hour’s drive east of Louisville. Ryan Ashley, director of distillery operations, purchases only non-GMO corn to make the distillery’s award-winning bourbon. It’s the only distillery in the United States to use 100 percent non-GMO corn in its spirits.
Four Roses gets its No. 2 Yellow Dent corn from Greensburg Soy Processors, a grain elevator and feed mill in Greensburg, Indiana. Much like Spirit Hound, Four Roses has a standing order with the farmers there. But there’s never been a formal contract; rather, Charles Fogg, manager of GSP, takes a page from cowboys of yore. “I think there’s no better way to make a deal than with a handshake,” he says.
Ashley agrees. He tells Fogg how many thousands of bushels of corn he needs, and then Fogg sends him a bill every 50,000 bushels or so. Over the years the two companies have built up a great deal of trust, as well as their own language of sorts for quality control.
“Their sensory testing is on caliber with ours,” Ashley says. “Even though everyone tastes and smells things differently, we’ve worked together to check the quality of the corn in the same way. The most important thing for us is the quality.”
It’s not uncommon for Fogg, who holds a commercial driver’s license, and his wife, Lisa, to make the three-hour trek south to Four Roses to deliver the corn in person.
“We usually make a run right before Christmas and bring a batch of homemade bourbon balls with us,” Fogg says. And yes, the bourbon balls contain Four Roses whiskey.
Fogg recalls the time they were making a delivery and Lisa fell in love with one of the posters on display inside the distillery’s visitor center. It was a print of the iconic WWII shot of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York City’s Times Square. When they made a second delivery later that year, Ashley pulled out a copy of the poster tied up with a red ribbon and presented it to Lisa.
“Now we have it framed and hanging in our living room,” Fogg says. “It’s amazing that for a company of its size, it’s so family-oriented and easy to deal with.”
That human touch and extra effort shines through in the finished product. Despite what many consumers may think, not everything can be done by machine. In reality, it’s the hard work and dedication of a team of farmers, distillers, and everyone in between that helps to bring your drink from field to bottle.
From the January 2015 issue.