Is there anything more American than corn? Back when adventurous Europeans still lived in fear of falling off the edge of a flat earth, native Americans had cultivated corn, adapting a rainbow of varieties to flourish in the soil of their deserts, mountains, forests and plains. In the centuries after Europeans arrived, the continent went corn crazy. Today, for better or worse, our plains are still fruited with corn, albeit with a dramatically less diverse collection of modern hybrid breeds.
Corn has become a part of our cultural DNA. While we may sigh at the thought of the insidious seep of corn syrup or ponder the wisdom of growing corn for fuel, who doesn’t harbor gauzy memories of shucking sweet corn on a summer afternoon, inhaling the intoxicating aroma of cornbread baking in a winter oven, or watching someone we love stirring a pot of polenta or grits over a hissing flame?
But what about whiskey? Distilling whiskey spirits with corn is one of the grand American traditions, and the recent passage of laws loosening the restrictions on commercial distilling have led to a blossoming of craft distillers in New York state. Even New York City, home to not a single distillery between prohibition and 2010, is now home to eight.
Kings County Distillery, based in a hundred and thirteen year old building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was the first of this new generation. Since 2010, Kings County partners Colin Spoelman, David Haskell and Nicole Austin have been making an unaged corn whiskey (better known as moonshine) and bourbon, with spirit distilled from organic corn grown in central New York by farmers Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain.
For this edition of Field to Fork, we travel north, to the western shores of Seneca Lake, to talk with Mary-Howell and Klaas about corn and the resurgence of organic grain farming in upstate New York, then follow their corn back to Kings County to chat with Colin about how whiskey is made.
From the Field, at Lakeview Organic Grain, with farmers Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens…
So Mary-Howell and Klaas, can you start by telling us a little about what you grow here at Lake View Organic?
Mary-Howell: We’re a fairly large, commercial, organic grain farm. We plant several varieties of corn and soybeans, a whole bunch of small grains, like flax, barley, spelt, oats and wheats, and some peas and beans too. We farm about fourteen hundred acres up here on the western shore of Seneca Lake, so it’s not a small operation. We harvest with combines and that sort of thing, which is not something everyone associates with organic farming. But we are strictly organic, and have been since the mid-nineteen nineties.
We also own a grain mill in the town of Penn Yan, a few miles from here. We bought it from Agway when they were going bankrupt and out of business a little over ten years ago, so nowadays we not only farm, but we mill our own grains and grains from other organic farms in the area, and we distribute them all over the region.
Most of what we grow is sold as feed to certified organic dairy farmers, but a growing volume is going to specialty manufacturers like Japanese tofu makers, new local distilleries and breweries, bakers and chefs, and to smaller-scale farmers – people who might have chickens in their backyard and want organic feed. We sell a good amount of organic seed as well.
Since we began farming organically in the early nineties, the market for organic grains has really evolved. It’s grown very dramatically.
Can you tell us a little about corn specifically? Different types, varieties?
Mary-Howell: Well one thing that some people get confused about is the difference between sweet corn and corn grown for grain.
Sweet corn is the corn you buy at a farm stand in August, and eat off the cob. People have been eating sweet corn for a long, long time. The native Americans had sweet corn, and people have continued to cultivate and eat sweet corn varieties right through to the modern day. But those older varieties of sweet corn were very different than the sweet corn we have today. The sweet corn that we eat off the cob today is grown almost exclusively with special hybrid varieties developed in the 1950s.
Relative to the older varieties, modern sweet corns are considered super-sweet. In those hybrids, the sugar lasts much longer in the kernels after they’ve been harvested. The older varieties were sweet on the plant, but very shortly after picking, the sugars in the kernels would break down into starch, so if you ate it a day after picking it, it would be pretty starchy. You had to cook and eat the older varieties right away. In the modern hybrids, they’ve added a couple of genes to increase sugar production in the kernels, and to stabilize the sugars so they have a longer shelf life.
Klaas: There’s a whole range of varieties of corns, from soft starch sweet corns all the way up to very hard starch corns used for grain. Actually, the vast majority of corn varietals are no longer being planted at all. The corns people grow today are such a narrow piece of what’s out there historically. There’s a whole range of old varietals that no one grows anymore, but there’s some growing interest in tapping into that.
Sweet corns basically exist at one end of a very large range of varietals. Sweet corn is loaded with soft starches, so it can be eaten fresh, but most varietals are dried then milled for feed or grain. Here at Lakeview, we just grow a little bit of sweet corn for our own consumption. Just about all of the corn we grow commercially are varieties used for grain.
You can see that by looking at our fields. Corn grown for grain is allowed to dry out on the stalk, so we don’t harvest our corn until the very end of the season, in November. Sweet corn is harvested when it’s fresh and green on the stalk. We let our grain corn turn brown on the stalk and dry out naturally as much as we can because as the kernel dries on the cob it becomes very stable. The drying kernel locks in the natural germs and oils and preserves them beautifully.
Mary-Howell: There are two main classifications that we use here for the corn we grow for grain. One is the hybrid corns, which were developed in the 1930s. Those were developed for higher yield. They’re more uniform, more consistent. It’s a very efficient type of corn. You can look across a field of it and it looks uniform. The stalks are the same height, the same color. The kernels are the same size and color. There’s very little variability. Each plant is almost genetically identical to every other one. They’re very stable and predictable and that’s what makes them good for farming.
Organically grown hybrid corn, if it’s grown in healthy soil anyway, is of a much higher quality than the same variety grown conventionally. It’s of a higher quality, and it has more flavor and nutritional content when it’s grown in healthy, nutrient-rich soil. Now, not all organic corn is grown in healthy, nutrient-rich soil, and if that’s the case, it’s not going to be more flavorful or nutritious, but that’s how we do things here. Everything we do starts with healthy, living soil.
The other kind of corn we grow is called open pollinated corn. Those are the older heritage or heirloom varieties. In those varieties, not every plant is genetically the same. You’ll look across a field of open pollinated corn and you’ll see stalks of different sizes. The ears will be located in different places on the stalk. You might get some yellow ears, some red ears. There’ll be some consistency within a varietal depending on where you’re farming and how that variety is adapted to your region, but there will be much more variation in it than in the hybrids, so it doesn’t yield as well.
We still grow primarily hybrid corn on our farm, because most of our corn is grain corn and we need the yield, and it’s a high quality product that we’re quite proud of. But the open pollinated varieties are very intriguing to us as farmers, and they represent a natural diversity that’s something we’d like to see more of in the future.
There are all kinds of varieties of the open pollinated heirloom corns. There’s blue corn, a really red corn called bloody butcher, there’s green corn – we grew a green variety one year called Oaxacan Green that was very high in oil content, so the flavor of the corn meal we made with it was almost buttery. It was fantastic, but you had to use it right away or it would go rancid. So, it wasn’t practical.
One of the varieties we grow here is called Wapsie Valley corn. Wapsie Valley is a place in Iowa, and the variety is an old native American strain that one local farmer stuck with while all of his neighbors were switching to hybrids. A farmer in Canada named Victor Kucyk adopted it and did a lot of work to promote it and since then it has really had a lot of impact in getting people to think about open pollinated varieties again for the first time in a long time.
We get our Wapsie Valley seed from him and grow it here. It’s beautiful corn, with big, waxy yellow, almost orange kernels, with these bright red ears that show up in about one in twenty plants.
Klaas: The nice thing about the open pollinated corn varieties is that you can select seeds to really adapt them in a lot of different ways. You can plant say an acre of it, then go out right before harvest and pull off the ears from plants that are particularly well-adapted to your climate and soil. You look for big ears, red ears, whatever you like, pull them off and use them for your own seed stock the following year, which will push your stock in the direction of the characteristics you want. It’s interesting how much of an affect one person can have on a varietal by selecting seeds to tailor it for the specific conditions on their farm.
With the hybrid corn, you don’t have that level of genetic variation to work with. It’s a good crop, but it’s not as malleable. You can’t adapt it to suit your own conditions and purposes because hybrid seeds don’t come true. That means you can’t save the seeds from one season’s crop to use the next year. It won’t grow as seed. You have to buy more seeds from the seed companies every year. So with the hybrids, you can’t save the seeds and select the best seeds to improve your own stock for your own specific conditions.
Having variety in the types of corn we’re growing is important. It’s not just about flavors and the types available for us to eat, it’s about diversity on an environmental level. The Hopi in the Arizona desert grow their own variety of corn in conditions so dry that you wouldn’t think anything at all would grow there. But over hundreds of years they’ve selected seeds for corn that can survive those conditions. In the Gaspé Peninsula way up north in Canada, the native Americans have a variety of corn that grows in extreme cold, over a really short growing season. Over hundreds and thousands of years in the Western Hemisphere, people selected and cultivated varieties of corn that were adapted particularly well to their specific environments – from the sub-arctic to the desert and everywhere in between.
So it’s not that the modern hybrid is a bad thing. It’s a good thing in many ways, and when it’s grown organically in good soil, it’s a great benefit to farmers and consumers. It’s just that it would also benefit the environment and be more sustainable and secure for us all if we were growing more varieties of corn in more places alongside those hybrids. The good thing is that we’re starting to see more interest in those heirloom varietals, but there’s a long way to go.
Can you tell us a little about your own experience with organic farming here? How does it work?
Mary-Howell: The approach goes back to the three sisters concept of native American agriculture. The native Americans in this area based their agriculture around the staple crops of corn, squash, and beans. They grew them all together in bunches in one field, and the plants would sustain each other while providing a balanced nutritional diet to the people growing them – beans would provide protein, corn would provide sugar and starch and squash would provide vitamins, color and calories.
Klaas: In terms of the approach to growing, the interesting thing is in how the plants work together. The big, broad, squash leaves shaded the roots of the corn stalks and the beans, keeping them cool and keeping moisture in the soil from burning off. The corn stalks provided support for the bean vines to grow up into the sun. And each of the plants provided nutrients in the soil that the other plants needed to thrive.
Mary-Howell: The organic system, in order for it to work, is based on intentional biodiversity just like you see in that three sisters system. It’s based on having a large variety of plants in the fields. Conventional farming is just the opposite – it’s all about monoculture, and intensive, large-scale production of one crop in one place. For us, the greater the number of species we have on our farm, the better, because they’re going to form a system that’s in balance, that can sustain and nourish and protect itself through its own diversity, without needing intervention in the form of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. That system includes both animals and plants, and it includes the animals you see and the animals you don’t.
We like to say that we don’t have many cows on our farm, but we have thousands of species of animals. They’re just really, really small, and they live in the soil. I’m talking about the microbes and the earthworms and all the other life in the soil that are really what our farm and any organic farm is all about. They’re the ones who cycle all the nutrients. They break down nutrients left in the soil by one plant into nutrients that can be used and absorbed by another plant the next season. Those are the things that give you healthy, living, soil, and healthy, living soil is what creates the conditions for healthy, nutritious, flavorful, thriving crops.
One key to giving all of those little animals that create such healthy soil the conditions they need to thrive is crop rotation. We’re always rotating different crops, different varieties of a crop and different cover crops on our fields from season to season, so we’re constantly replenishing the nutrients in the soil. Healthy, living soil allows the plants growing in it to be much healthier and more resilient. They’re better able to compete against weeds and pests, and they’re going to be healthier and more flavorful than conventionally grown versions of the same plants.
Klaas: In organic farming you take a a very different approach to managing weeds and pests. In conventional farming, you see a weed, you think, “How am I going to kill that weed as quickly and effectively as possible?” You go and get your spray rig and spray the field with chemicals to eliminate the weed.
In organic farming, we think of weeds and pests as a good things, in the sense that they act as our teachers. They show us when something is out of balance in our fields. We pay attention to them, and we try to understand why they’re here. Rather than saying, “There’s something here, we don’t want, so let’s kill it,” we say, “What did we do to create the conditions that attracted these things that can damage our crops in the first place?”
If we see weeds in a part of one of the fields, we say, “Why here? What’s different about this field or this part of this field than a field just across the way that’s not having a weed problem? What did we do differently here, and what’s naturally different here?” Everything is connected. Is it the terrain, the species of plants we’re growing, that are causing the weeds to thrive? What can we do to naturally change the underlying conditions in the soil and the field to create a situation that’s not hospitable to pests or weeds, without spraying it with chemicals?
In conventional agriculture, you assume the problems are just random and inevitable, and you treat them to make them go away. In organic agriculture, you see the problems as teachers, as feedback from the soil and the plants. They’re telling us something. They’re showing us where something is out of balance or harmony in the ecosystem of the farm.
Mary-Howell: You have approaches to agriculture that are being held out as alternatives to organic, like Integrated Pest Management, or I.P.M. The idea there is that you don’t spray indiscriminately and proactively, you spray conservatively. You spray only when you find symptoms of problems with weeds or pests. The idea is that it’s less bad, because you’re using less chemicals.
But it’s still not sustainable. We’re not interested in less bad. We want to understand the causes of the condition, and we want to find ways to address the underlying condition. It’s not about just killing the insect with a spray, it’s about asking the question of what can we do to develop an environment in this field that will attract more beneficial insects and less harmful ones.
Of course, it’s not a perfect system. It doesn’t always work perfectly. You’re always learning and adjusting and adapting. The weather is a huge wild card these days because it’s so erratic, and that’s something you cannot control. The systems at work in the soil, in the fields, in the plants, from week to week within the season and across the seasons are very complex. Our understanding of it all is very incomplete. But we’ve found that by approaching agriculture the way we do, with a focus on the underlying conditions, that we’re able to do quite well, and to be just as productive, if not significantly more so, than many conventional farms.
What led you to take the organic approach? Have you always been farming organically or did you make the transition from conventional at some point?
Mary-Howell: Klaas grew up farming. He’s farmed his whole life. I’m not from a farm background. I’m from Long Island. I came to Cornell to study and work. I was working in their grape breeding program. I met Klass then. I was basically in charge of planning the spray programs for our breeding vineyards.
We were completely conventional farmers back then. We knew how to spray and we were good at it. But we also knew that our land, our clothing, our children were getting the lion’s share of those chemicals we were spraying, and it wasn’t something we felt good about. We knew it wasn’t good. But at that time it was something you just didn’t talk about. If you were a farmer, that’s just what you did.
At the same time we were feeling the economic pressures that all smaller-scale conventional farmers were feeling. We realized that farming five hundred acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay conventionally just wasn’t going to bring in enough money for us to survive. The commodity prices were just too low.
So we started looking around at various niches, different value-added opportunities, but nothing really caught our attention, and when it did and we started penciling out the economics, nothing really added up to something that would sustain the farm.
In 1991, we were sitting here at the table one evening, looking at the local paper. There was an ad in the classified section at the back of the paper that said, “Wanted: Organic Wheat.”
Now, nobody wanted organic wheat back then. Nobody grew it. Nobody even talked about it. But we looked at each other and thought, “Eh, of course it won’t work, but why not give it a try?” So we did, and it did work. Much to our surprise, there was a market for organic wheat. There was a real demand out there for it. It paid far more than conventional wheat, and it allowed us to start moving away from spraying.
We didn’t just completely switch from conventional to organic at once. We started converting more and more acreage of the farm to certified organic production, year by year. Back in about 1995, we were still partly organic and partly conventional. Klaas went out to spray some of the conventional fields one day with a very commonly used weed killer called 2,4-D. While he was spraying, he suddenly felt his whole right side go numb. It happened out in the field.
Klaas: I knew I was getting a lot of spray. The smell was really strong, coming into the tractor. All of a sudden, my arm wouldn’t move.
Mary-Howell: He went to see a local doctor, who just prescribed him some pain pills and muscle relaxers. There, in the middle of June, a farmer comes in complaining of numbness and nausea, and no one even thought to ask, “What have you been spraying?”
Klaas: Eventually I went to a chiropractor and he put me on a major detox, and it took me close to six months to recover. But that incident was the one that prompted us to make the transition to completely organic farming. The day my arm was paralyzed was the last time I ever sprayed. We made a decision that we couldn’t ethically hire someone to do it for us. We didn’t want to.
Mary-Howell: It had been going on forever. Whenever Klaas would spray, he’d come in in the evening with a splitting headache, feeling nauseous. It wasn’t just him either. When you talked to any of the neighbors they’d end up admitting to the same thing. So that just put us over the edge, and it’s turned out to be a very good thing.
Klaas: In the beginning, when we first started transitioning, we knew nothing. People were convinced it was going to be an utter disaster. There was no production system out there for us to look at and copy. We had to figure out how to do it on our own.
Mary-Howell: But we did figure it out. The more we tried, the better it worked. And we started to discover that there were a few other organic farmers in the area, kind of quietly growing grain. The problem early on was that there weren’t enough of us growing grains organically to create enough of a critical mass for markets to come here to buy. We weren’t producing enough for it to be worth their time.
But we started working with a few other farmers, and we slowly got to a point where together we were producing enough organic soybeans and grains that it made sense for buyers to come up here. Once we were producing enough for them to put together truckloads of grain, they started coming and buying from us and they never stopped.
Klaas: And it just started to grow really quickly. Once people could see that what we were doing was working, that you could actually farm this stuff organically without all those toxic sprays, and you could get a much higher price for it, more and more of them started to convert.
Mary-Howell: By the mid-nineties, there were enough of us growing organic soybeans that we were able to start selling to Japanese buyers, who would send it to Japan for tofu. Around that time, about the first three organic dairy farmers came to us and said, “Would you start growing organic feed for us?” We said, “Sure,” assuming it wouldn’t be a big deal. By 2001 we had over a hundred dairy feed customers.
Of course, you need to be able to grind your grains for feed and other purposes, and we were sending all of ours out to be milled. At that time, Agway, one of the big feed companies at the time, was dismembering. They were going bankrupt and selling off all their property. They had a feed mill in town that had been sitting idle for about ten years. The demand for our grains for organic feed was growing so quickly that we decided to buy it.
We thought back then that we’d run it part time. At this point we have seven full time employees, two trucks on the road making deliveries throughout the region, we’re grinding more grain there than Agway ever did and it’s all certified organic.
The demand for the stuff has continued to grow from all kinds of unexpected places. The demand for organic feed for dairy farmers has started to plateau because it’s such a difficult business. The cost of organic grain is high and the price the dairy farmers can get for organic milk isn’t high enough to bring in enough money to allow most of those farmers to grow.
In recent years, it became legal for smaller-scale distilleries to make whiskey and spirits in New York State again. That’s taken off. So now we’re supplying organic corn and barley and rye to about six different distilleries. Microbreweries have taken off too, so there’s a new unexpected market for organic barley.
We even supply a kosher matzo bakery in Brooklyn. We never would have imagined that twenty years ago. You’d never even know it’s there. It’s tucked away inside this old tenement building. You walk inside, and there are probably sixty Hasidic guys, rolling matzo like crazy and cooking them in a wood and coal-fired furnace hearth. It’s an incredible scene. You feel like you’ve stepped back two hundred years in time. And then you go upstairs and you see a whole different thing – the head rabbi is in an office in front of a wall covered with closed-circuit television screens. They have cameras recording every step of production, so if there’s ever a question about any kosher law being broken, they can rewind and replay. [laughter.]
Even the whole backyard chicken thing has created a new market. I’ve got one guy who raises a few hundred chickens for eggs and meat that he sells at a few local farmers markets. He came in one time and said, “If you all weren’t doing what you’re doing, I couldn’t do what I’m doing.” And I think that’s what’s really neat about all this. Because we grow organic grains, we can have the mill. Because we have the mill, we can produce organic feed which allows that guy to raise chickens. Because he has chickens, people in Rochester and all around here can have really great eggs and meat, and be amazed by how much better they are than any other eggs or chicken meat they’ve ever had.
Or with a place like King’s County Distillery – we can provide fresh-ground organic corn that’s of a much higher quality than the conventional alternative to a guy like Colin, who uses it to make whiskey, and then he’s able to provide a really high quality whiskey to people in his community. These are the kinds of things that we just think are really neat.
So what’s next? Seeing any trends in interest in what you’re doing from new directions out there?
Mary-Howell: What I hope is next is the whole idea of fresh-ground grains. We’ve been working with Dan Barber of Blue Hill for the last five years. He said, “The whole idea of fresh fruits and vegetables has really been driven home.” Everybody knows fresh tomatoes are better, fresh greens, even fresh, pastured meat is better. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the same applies to grains.
When corn or wheat or any kind of grains are ground and packaged commercially, a lot of the good stuff in them, like the oils and germ which carry a lot of flavor and nutritional value, all get removed so that the product doesn’t go rancid. You have to remove them to give them a longer shelf life. So when you buy whole wheat flour at the grocery store, it isn’t whole wheat. The oils and germ have been removed. It’s also probably old. It may have been ground six months or more before you get it.
What a lot of people haven’t realized yet is that if you get freshly ground grain, it’s going to have a much shorter shelf-life, but it’s going to have more flavor than you could ever imagine. Fresh cornmeal or fresh flour? Their flavors are much more intense and complex. And that’s one of the things we specialize in here. Freshly-ground organic grains. That’s something that people are just starting to really understand and it’s something we’re really excited about it.
So are you seeing a continuing shift to organic farming in this area?
Mary-Howell: It’s changing, but it hasn’t completely changed. There’s a lot of talk about the changing landscape of agriculture in the northeast, and I just don’t think a lot of that talk is true.
I was at a conference a few months ago – a regional feed dealers’ conference that we have every year. Someone was giving a big presentation about how we have more and more farms in New York growing in size, from five hundred cows to a thousand, or from one thousand to three thousand. They were talking about how consolidation and large-scale farming is the way of the future.
For our perspective, it’s really not. As far as we can see, the way of the future is the forty-cow Amish or Mennonite farm. This part of New York state is being invaded by Mennonite and Amish farmers, and it’s the best thing that’s happened around here in a long time. Around here, when a farm goes up for sale, it’s usually a Mennonite or Amish family buying it.
They’re all about small farms, run mostly on family labor. I can’t tell you how many of these farms have been set up around here in the recent past. We’re shipping feed today to close to two hundred Amish and Mennonite farms in this part of the state, and those are just the certified organic ones. There are many, many more.
It makes for a much healthier rural economy. When I moved up here thirty years ago, vast stretches of this county were abandoned. Now they’re all being farmed. Because we have all of these family farms, we’ve got a very healthy fire department, ambulance corps, library, hardware stores, farm supply stores. It’s different than an area occupied by huge farms because there are a lot more people here. There’s a community. In some places where there are a lot of huge farms and not a lot of people, like in Iowa, the small towns are dying. Here, they’re thriving because of this influx of Amish and Mennonites who center their whole lives on the small family farm.
What’s strange is that it’s obviously happening right here, right now, but the powers-that-be and the policy makers seem to be blind to the trend. It’s literally like they don’t even see it.
…To the Still, at Kings County Distillery with founder Colin Spoelman
So Colin, tell us about corn, and whiskey.
Well the art of distilling whiskies really matured in Europe, most famously in Scotland and Ireland, centuries ago. The first official records specifically relating to the distilling of whisky in Scotland go back something like five hundred years.
So for a long time over there, whisky was distilled with malted barley or other grains, but not corn. Corn of course, is native to the Americas. When Europeans began settling here, they made corn beers, but continued for the most part to use rye and other grains they were familiar with from Europe to distill whiskey.
In the late 1760s, Daniel Boone first explored the area that would eventually become Kentucky. It was considered to be a part of Virginia at the time. A few years later, in order to encourage people to venture west and settle there, the state passed a law saying they’d grant a bunch of land in Kentucky to anyone who settled there, built a cabin, and planted corn.
There were a huge number of Scotch-Irish coming into the country at the time, and a lot of them settled in Kentucky and the surrounding areas. They knew how to make whisky from back home, and they started making it in Kentucky, and since there was so much corn being grown there, eventually they started making whiskey with corn. So, in conjunction with this effort to promote settlement and cultivation of the frontier, the very American tradition of making whiskies with corn was born.
Here, we make both a moonshine, which is an unaged corn whiskey made with eighty percent corn and twenty percent barley, and a bourbon which is made with seventy percent corn and thirty percent barley, before it’s aged for a year upstairs in oak barrels.
When we started out, it wasn’t explicitly our mission to make whiskey with local or organic corn. It was our mission to make good whiskey. Early on, when we were experimenting, we were using a conventionally grown corn called brewers corn. It’s a flattened, steamed cornmeal. It was processed like rolled oats – broken down and crushed between two hot rollers. It was very easy product to use in distilling, but because it had been processed the way it had been, it wasn’t a fresh product. A lot of the elements within the kernel had been removed or compromised or just altered in some way by the processing.
Eventually, we tried Lake View Organic’s corn. Honestly, I think we found them by googling ‘New York State corn,’ or something. They’re very tech-savvy for a farm, which basically means they have a website. [laughter.] We liked the sound of what they were doing, growing corn organically and grinding it fresh to preserve some of the elements in the kernel that were lost in other processing methods, so we tried it, and we liked it immediately.
Corn is stable as long as it’s in the kernel. It doesn’t degrade. What Lakeview Organics does differently is, they grow it organically, and they mill it or grind it fresh, so the corn grain we get from them is actually a fresh product. It may have been harvested months ago, but it’s not ground for us until we need it, so this whole range of flavors and materials in the corn kernel are preserved, and I think that really impacts the quality of our whiskey. It’s just a much higher quality of corn than what we had been using.
It really had a noticeable difference in the whiskey. When we were using the conventionally grown and processed corn, our whiskey had a thinner, narrower, sweeter flavor. Now we have a much broader, earthier, richer kind of flavor profile.
When you’re tasting a white, unaged spirit, like our moonshine, you can definitely taste the difference between a spirit distilled with a high quality corn like the one we use and one distilled with a lower quality corn. With an aged spirit like the bourbon, it’s harder, because so much flavor is infused from the charred oak barrels as the whiskey ages. The flavor of the corn might not be so pronounced, but the quality of the corn imparts a certain quality in the whiskey that gives it richer flavor and a fuller body. It makes a noticeable difference.
Can you tell us a little about how you actually make your whiskey?
It’s not terrifically technical, to distill a whiskey. Here, all of our distilling is done in very small batches. We don’t have nearly the capacity of the larger commercial Kentucky distilleries. So we have a much, much smaller yield. The bigger commercial distilleries have gotten very good at aging their whiskies. They don’t place as much emphasis on the actual distilling of the spirit as they do on the aging of it, because during the aging process, a lot of flaws in the distilling of the spirit can be masked in one way or another.
So one thing we do differently here is we pay a lot of very careful attention to how we distill the spirit. We put a lot of care into using very high quality ingredients, and into distilling the highest possible quality white spirit that we can. That allows us to produce a very nice unaged whiskey – the moonshine, and it allows us to age our bourbon in smaller barrels for shorter periods of time. Because we’re starting with a very high quality spirit and we age it in much smaller barrels than the bigger commercial distilleries, it doesn’t need to age as long in order mature.
The process begins with distilling the spirit. To begin, we mix fifty gallons of water and fifty pounds of corn, and bring that to a boil. The mixture becomes fairly starchy very quickly, as it would if you were making grits. The water breaks down the corn and disperses its starches. The liquid turns yellow, and we let it begin to cool.
The reason we use malted barley as well as corn in the spirit is because there are enzymes in the barley that are really good at breaking down the starches from the corn into the sugar that the yeast will later transform into alcohol. Those enzymes in the barley are at their most active at a hundred and fifty eight degrees. So when the corn and water mixture cools to that temperature, we add the barley and stir it around and let it sit for about thirty minutes.
Another way in which we differ from a lot of distillers is that we do not use synthetic enzymes to break down the starches into sugar. We only use the natural enzymes in the malted barley, and that’s pretty uncommon. That’s something that also impacts our yield. If we used synthetic enzymes, we could produce more, but we believe that our process results in a really nice whiskey in the end, and that’s what we’re most interested in.
As soon as you add the barley, the mixture – which we call the mash – starts to taste sweet, as if you’d added sugar even though you have not. It’s the enzymes from the barley breaking the starches from the corn down into sugar. It starts to happen immediately.
We let the mash cool to room temperature, and then we begin the fermentation by adding our yeast. We mix it into the mash and let it ferment for four and a half days. The yeast consumes the sugar and dissolved oxygen and transforms it into alcohol. After about four and a half days, the yeast will have done just about all of the work they can. They’ll have consumed all the sugar and oxygen available and made that into alcohol, so then it’s time to distill.
First, we strain out all the leftover solids from the corn and the barley. They go to the pig farmer for feed. The strained liquid goes into the still.
We use these fairly old, traditional pot stills, and we distill our spirit twice. On the first run, we basically reduce about fifty gallons of liquid to about ten, by just boiling off a lot of the water content. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so we start with a mash that’s about eight percent alcohol, and distill it to separate and condense the alcohol. At this stage, we call what comes off the still the ‘low wines.’ The low wines still have a lot of impurities, a lot of undesirable oils. It’s still quite crude.
The second distillation is where we really focus in on what we’re doing, on producing a really well-balanced, smooth white spirit. When you’re distilling your spirit you’re basically slowly heating your liquid to a high temperature, to separate the desirable alcohols and flavors from everything else. The second distillation takes you through a few distinct stages, which we call the heads, hearts and tails.
One thing that a lot of people don’t necessarily understand is that there are a whole variety of different types of alcohols. It’s not a single, pure thing. There’s methyl alcohol, or methanol, which is very toxic. There’s ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is the type of alcohol we drink in beers, wines and spirits. And there are a whole bunch of other alcohols that occur in nature through fermentation. Ethanol is the one we’re after in the distilling and brewing process.
What happens in distillation is that alcohol boils at a hundred and seventy three degrees – well before the two hundred and twelve degrees at which water boils. As the temperature of the still increases, the alcohols start to boil off before the water. As the temperature rises higher, water and other oils in the mash start to boil off too. In the first stage of distillation, called the heads, you have a lot of nasty, harsh alcohols and compounds that boil off at the lowest temperature. The heads are about eighty two percent alcohol – the highest concentration that you can get with our stills. They smell like toxic solvents, and that’s exactly what they are. At that stage, you have a lot of methanol and acetone in your distillate. This is stuff that can kill you. We completely remove those from the whiskey. We actually keep it and use it to clean the equipment.
The next stage is called the hearts. After the nasty heads have boiled off and been removed, you get into the hearts. In this stage, as the temperature is rising, the vapor coming off the still is dropping to about eighty percent alcohol, as more water and oils and compounds are boiling off, but now with the much cleaner ethyl alcohol. This is the good stuff – very clean, with that immediately familiar whiskey flavor and smell. This is where you’re getting the highest levels of ethanol, which is what you really want. The hearts last from about where you’re at about eighty percent alcohol all the way through to when you have about sixty seven percent alcohol coming off the still. Remember – as the temperature increases, the percentage of alcohol in your distillate decreases because more water is evaporating and coming off the still along with the alcohol.
The last stage is called the tails. As the temperature of the still continues to rise and your distillate drops below sixty seven percent alcohol, you’re into the tails. At this stage, you start getting something called fusel oils. The purity starts to drop, and you start getting some funky flavors coming through. The fusel alcohols are what cause hangovers. We cut those off as well.
So the art in craft distilling comes in deciding where to make your cuts – when to start pulling your spirit off the still, and when stop, to get just the right quality and balance of flavor. It really is an art, and we take great care in this stage of the game to ensure that we have a really smooth, pure, balanced spirit coming off the still.
Like I said, larger producers don’t worry so much about the distillation, because a lot of impurities can be removed in the aging process. But we believe in putting a lot of care into the distillation. We think it gives us a really nice quality white spirit, which is what we call the unaged alcohol coming off the still.
So after we pull the white spirit off the still it’s still very strong. We dilute it with distilled water to bring us to the proper proof. And that, basically, is our moonshine. For the moonshine, we’re diluting it and blending several different batches to ensure a nice consistency in flavor, then we bottle it and that’s it.
For the bourbon, the spirit is diluted to a hundred and twenty five proof, or sixty two and a half percent alcohol, and put straight into charred oak barrels to age. The charred wood is essentially a charcoal filter. The whiskey absorbs a lot of the flavor of the sap of the wood, and the charcoal lining of the barrel acts as a filter to remove many of the impurities left in the white spirit that comes off the still. So you get a lot of flavor developing during aging, through both addition and subtraction. To my mind about eighty five percent of the flavor in a bourbon comes from an infusion of flavor from the barrel itself, and another fifteen percent comes from mellowing – the removal of some of the volatile compounds through the natural charcoal filtering that happens in the barrel.
We age our bourbon for a year. The bigger distilleries generally age for much longer. That’s for a couple of reasons. Like I said, we put a lot of effort and care into distilling a very balanced white spirit to begin with. A lot of the bigger distilleries don’t worry so much about distillation because they can just age it longer to filter out the impurities. We put a lot of emphasis on starting with a very strong, smooth spirit, with a very, very minimal level of impurities that need to be filtered or mellowed. We also age our whiskies in much smaller barrels. We only produce five gallons of spirit a day, so we age our whiskey in five gallon barrels. The big distillers are using fifty three gallon barrels. In aging, it’s all about surface area. Our barrels are much smaller, so the whiskey doesn’t have to age as long.
There is often a misconception out there that the longer a bourbon is aged, the better it is. That’s not true. A bourbon is ready when it has matured. It’s ready when it’s ready. If a bourbon ages too long, it will start to taste overly woody. It’ll lose its balance. Generally, it needs to age for at least a year, because you want it to go through the full cycle of seasons in the barrel. When it’s warmer, the bourbon expands in the barrel. It’s literally pushed into the oak. When it’s cold it contracts, and is extracted back out. That cycle allows the flavors of the charred oak to really steep into the whiskey. So for that reason bourbon makers generally don’t want temperature controls in their aging rooms. We don’t have any heat or air-conditioning in here. The more temperature fluctuation you have over the course of the year, and the smaller the barrels you’re using, the faster the whiskey will mature.
We taste every barrel as the whiskey ages, and we know when it’s ready. When it is ready, we blend whiskies from several barrels to ensure we’re getting that consistency in flavor from batch to batch, and then we dilute it to the proper proof – our bourbon is forty five percent alcohol – and into the bottle it goes.
So the big difference between our whiskey and the whiskies being made by the big Kentucky distillers is in the process. The big distillers are buying trainloads of corn on the open commodities market. They’re not focusing on the quality of the corn – they’re looking for the cheapest starch you can buy. They’re doing a different type of distillation too, in which they’re not focusing on making those precise cuts in the distilling run to capture that really rich, balanced band of flavors in the white spirit as it’s coming fresh off the still.
To their credit, many of those bigger distillers have gotten very, very good at aging their whiskies. They do it so well that they’re able to filter out most of the imperfections in their spirits that come from their less detail-oriented distilling process. So I think you have the bigger Kentucky distillers who don’t put much emphasis on the distillation, and age their whiskey really well, and you have smaller craft distillers who put a lot of emphasis on distillation so that they don’t have to age their whiskies so long in order to get a really nice bourbon of comparable quality to the big Kentucky brands. For the smaller guys like us, the focus tends to be more on flavor at every step rather than yield.
So Colin, how did you end up distilling here?
Well, the deep beginning of it probably lies back when I was growing up in a dry county in Kentucky. When we were in high school and we wanted liquor, we’d go to a local bootlegger. Bootleggers aren’t necessarily someone who just sells moonshine from a still out in the woods anymore. In modern times a bootlegger is more likely someone who drove to Virginia and filled up his trunk with Zima and then sells it out the back door at home in a dry county. [laughter.] That’s modern day bootlegging for you.
So bootleggers and moonshine and bourbon were a real part of the culture down there growing up and I kind of became fascinated with all that. I moved to New York about eleven years ago. I went home one time and brought back some moonshine, and just had fun sharing it with people at parties and that kind of thing. As I started to run out of it, I started trying to figure out whether I could maybe make some myself, right here in Brooklyn.
I ended up going online to do some research and to look at some stills. As it turned out, it’s not too hard to learn how to make moonshine. I decided to do it. I got a crude still and decided upon my recipe and started making moonshine on the roof of my apartment in Williamsburg. It was just for fun. There was no plan to turn it into a business.
But as we started making it and tasting it with our friends, we started getting really interested in refining it. We wanted to make something that wasn’t just a really high proof – we wanted to distill a very high quality, well balanced moonshine. Moonshine isn’t something most people associate with quality, but we started to see where we could go with it. Once we realized that we could do it, and that no one else was doing it in New York City, we decided to try to become the first licensed distillery in New York City since prohibition.
We got a tiny little production space in Williamsburg right after we got our license in 2010. We started selling our moonshine as soon as we started producing it, and we started aging our bourbon right away. People really liked it. We couldn’t come close to keeping up with the demand.
We ended up finding out about this space in the old Paymaster’s building in the Navy Yard. We loved the building and we could see that it would really let us grow. So here we are today. We’re distilling downstairs and aging about four hundred five gallon oak barrels of bourbon upstairs. We’ll be moving to some larger stills and barrels soon, so things will change, but we feel like we’ve really got a good process, a good approach, and we’re producing some really nice whiskey. That won’t change.
Kings County Distillery is based in the Paymaster’s Building of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Their moonshine and bourbon is available throughout the borough.
Photography by Valery Rizzo. All rights reserved.