An heirloom corn’s revival from forgotten field to prized bourbon
In the sweltering heat of late summer, when rumbling afternoon thunderstorms leave saunas in their wake, no one would fault Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall for staying put in the air-conditioned offices of their distillery in downtown Charleston. Yet on this particular morning, the husband and wife team and co-owners of High Wire Distilling Co. are up early, driving south.
Eighties music shuffles on the radio as their car cruises past roadside fried chicken stops, fish markets, and rural clapboard churches, until the walls of pine forest open to a vast stretch of marsh and sky forming the ACE Basin, a federally protected watershed encompassing about 140,000 acres of coastal wilderness. It’s beautiful, but Blackwell and Marshall aren’t here for vacation. They’ve come to check on the progress of a crop—a very important crop. They’ve come to check on fields of Jimmy Red Corn.
Blackwell and Marshall know this route by heart. The car barrels across the Ashepoo River, then peels off down a long tree-covered road, through a formal alley of live oaks, past hundreds of scattered golden chanterelles (Marshall resists the urge to jump out and pick them), over a levee flanked by sun-toasted rice in flooded fields, and finally, to a century-old house dwarfed by trees at least three times as old. There awaits Jimmy Hagood, who, along with his extended family, owns and stewards this land, known as Lavington, as they have for generations. The family initially grew crops to attract and sustain game, leaving fields to wild boar, deer, raccoons, and fox squirrels. Now Hagood has transitioned into crops he likes to call “conservation cuisine”—the revival of precious Lowcountry staples.
Sugarcane grown here infuses the hand-scripted bottles of High Wire’s French-Caribbean-style rhum agricole, and this year, for the third year straight, the corn in Lavington’s patchwork fields is destined to become High Wire’s straight bourbon whiskey, made with 100 percent Jimmy Red Corn. (That Hagood goes by “Jimmy” is pure coincidence, one he surely appreciates.)
A tall man with an easy gait, Hagood trods through tall grass and boggy puddles to open the gated enclosure he installed to protect the corn. A legion of dried stalks stand upright. The field looks withered, defeated, spent—but to Hagood, Blackwell, and Marshall it burgeons with life. Choruses of birds and crickets serenade as Hagood reaches for the tip of a fat husk of corn and partially peels it back to reveal the signature deep burgundy hue of mature Jimmy Red left to dry in the sun before harvest. The three venture educated guesses at the current hydration level of the kernels. “Just a couple of days of no rain and we’ll be ready to go,” Hagood says with conviction.
Kernels of Inspiration
Why Jimmy Red? Why not make bourbon with the same inexpensive commodity corn used by most established, successful distilleries? For Blackwell and Marshall, the question was foremost about taste.
“The big boys make some great products,” Blackwell acknowledges, his “big boy” moniker alluding to the fact that in the time it takes High Wire to fill one and a half barrels, Buffalo Trace can fill 368, and Jack Daniels 1,000. “We knew that in order to fit in this world of distillation, we had to make something different.”
Bourbon, by definition, must use at least 51 percent corn in its initial mash, with most distillers using anywhere from 60 to 80 percent corn, then adding wheat or rye for nuances in flavor. Maker’s Mark and Pappy Van Winkle are wheated bourbons. Then there are rye bourbons, high rye bourbons, low rye bourbons. “Somehow corn was never a part of the conversation,” Blackwell says. “You’ve got distillers bragging about their limestone water or going to great lengths to experiment with different cuts of wood in their barrels or the way they char their barrels, which is all interesting, but then they turn around and use the same type of corn that everyone else does: No. 2 Yellow Dent, or some variation of that. That’s just fascinating to me.”
Marshall interjects, “Most distillers think of corn in terms of alcohol and sugar, not flavor.”
Blackwell and Marshall reached out to grain guru Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, to tap his knowledge of heirloom corn in their search for unique kernels whose natural attributes might parlay well into bourbon. Within a week, Roberts met Blackwell at Clemson’s agricultural research annex south of Charleston.
“I showed up,” says Blackwell, “and they had a whole six-foot folding table full of forty or fifty varieties of heirloom corn for me to consider.” Roberts started explaining the qualities of each. When Blackwell asked him which might yield the best whiskey, Roberts pointed to Jimmy Red.
“It was really just a hunch,” says Blackwell in retrospect, “a finger in the wind, because Glenn had never made whiskey, but he knew that Jimmy Red was grown as an old bootleggers’ corn, and suggested I try it.” The hunch paid off.
Before Blackwell and Marshall could distill it, they had to grow it. Brian Ward at Clemson’s research center agreed to give Jimmy Red his best shot, planting a little over two acres in a far corner of his organic farm.
“That first year, I went out to Clemson every week,” says Blackwell. “I ran along behind the tractor in my flip-flops taking pictures, from the seeds going into the ground all the way up to harvest.”
“He only had to get stung by fire ants twice,” laughs Marshall, “to realize you don’t wear flip-flops on a farm.”
At harvest time, problems with getting the combine into the field dovetailed into serendipity. Blackwell and Marshall reached out to Charleston’s culinary community to invite them to a community harvest, or “crop mob.” In response, friends swarmed the field, happy to experience the sheer novelty of standing among tall, Halloween-like corn rows, to twist ruby red cobs off dry stalks and toss them into baskets, and to feast on steaming bowls of Jimmy Red stoneground grits served up by Glass Onion’s chef Chris Stewart. The mood under cloudy skies was bright and hopeful, and there was palpable excitement in having played a small role in the creation of what could become a very special new Lowcountry bourbon.
The Comeback Corn
Flying under the radar at that community harvest, working quietly and not calling attention to himself, was a man without whom Jimmy Red would likely not exist. Although there have been other key players on the path to Jimmy Red’s rescue from extinction, it all started with farmer Ted Chewning.
A dozen-plus years ago, a friend handed Chewning two ears of strange blood-red corn salvaged from a perishing field whose owner had died prior to harvest. Curious, Chewning planted the kernels of one and saved the other, then continued planting small individual plots over the years, keeping fields separate to reinvigorate the corn’s genetics, all the while hand selecting kernels for continuity and expansion of core seed stock.
“To me,” says Chewning, “it tastes like the old-timey field corn rather than the sugar enhanced hybrids. It’s a throwback to days gone by. When milled into grits, it has a natural sweetness to it, kind of like tapioca.”
Chewning didn’t really have a mission for the corn. He grew it for the sheer joy and challenge of recultivating a rare and unusual plant. A seed saving enthusiast to the core, Chewning plants a cornucopia of mixed crops, some for Anson Mills. Roberts stopped in for a routine visit and spotted the Jimmy Red stalks towering above Chewning’s other vegetables, peas, cane, and sorghum. Then the two engaged in excited conversation that only a fellow seed-saving enthusiast and avid culinarian could appreciate, raving about Jimmy Red’s blue heart starch endosperm, its massive germ, its magenta pericarp, and other such nuances of stalk morphology.
For Roberts, seeing the corn was a legend come to life. For decades, he had heard of a local red corn grown on the islands that, in Robert’s words, “made great hooch.” Home-grown, home-distilled spirits quenched the fiery thirsts of back-door kitchen staff and high society alike, yet had become harder to find, especially as area fields cashed out to espouse uniform commodity crops. Until the two surviving cobs were placed in Chewning’s hands, the legendary James Island (a.k.a. “Jimmy”) Red had all but disappeared. At first, Roberts didn’t realize the corn was hanging on by such a slim margin. “That finally dawned on me when Ted literally shook me and said, ‘this corn is dying.’”
From there, Roberts did what he does best, which is to get seeds into the hands of passionate planters and discerning chefs. Farmers George and Celeste Albers pitched in to help Chewning grow his first large-scale crop.
Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill on Edisto Island grew and milled Jimmy Red for public distribution as stoneground cornmeal and red-flecked grits. Renowned chef Sean Brock grew and heralded the grain, even going so far as to tattoo the red corn on his arm. Soon Brock was being asked about Jimmy Red in such far-flung locales as Tokyo. By 2014, Jimmy Red had reached foodie cult status.
Yet it wasn’t the hype that convinced Blackwell and Marshall to gamble on it as a future bourbon. It was Roberts’ hunch that this was, in his words, “the corn closest to the ground culture in Charleston that historically produced the best whiskey in the region and fed both the poor and the elite.” After rounds of culinary testing, whereby Blackwell created cold slurries from raw grain, taste-testing various corns against each other, Blackwell and Marshall chose Jimmy Red
From Field to Barrel
Hunches aside, no one knew how the corn would translate on the distillery floor. In late 2014, Ward’s community-harvested crop was dried down and delivered to the warehouse door.
“The first indication that we were working with something really distinctive was that when we were milling it, the whole room smelled like peanut butter,” says Marshall. “You would let it fall out of the mill into your hands, and when you squeezed your hands it would clump up like it was a dough ball—which is so unusual for cornmeal. It had that cherry-almond marzipan kind of scent to it as well.”
Next came the mashing process where the unfiltered cornmeal cooked like churning grits in a giant steel vat, slowly escalating heat, converting starch to sugars. With the addition of yeast, the entire soupy-grainy mixture was pumped into the jacket-cooled fermentation tank. After twenty-four hours, what Blackwell and Marshall saw blew their minds.
“We came in, and it had this really thick oil cap on it,” says Blackwell. “We’d seen spots of oil with other grains, but nothing like this.”
“The oil was three-inches thick,” says Marshall. “We stuck our fingers in it and it coated them. It had this really familiar smell to it, which we all eventually decided was like Banana Laffy Taffy! The oil really affirmed the feeling that we were doing something that was very different from anything we had experienced before, which was exciting.”
Then the entire mixture (oils, grains, and all) entered High Wire’s large copper still for distillation, the process by which liquid turns to vapor then condenses back to liquid to produce spirit. Again, the results were tangible. “You could feel it,” says Marshall. “When you ran your fingers under what we call the parrot (the head that the spirit comes off of), it had this incredible viscosity. No one really talks about mouthfeel with spirits, but it was incredibly rich.” Still, no one knew how the oil-rich spirit would react to the barrel. Only time would tell.
On December 2, 2016, following a two-year rest in bright-red-lidded barrels, High Wire released its New Southern Revival 100 percent Jimmy Red Corn Straight Bourbon Whiskey to the public. Apart from stock set aside for select distributors, distillery bottles sold out in eleven minutes flat. The two next releases are planned for early November and early December of this year. This will be Hagood’s first opportunity to sip the yields of his first crop.
Those of us lucky enough to snag a bottle, or to pilfer a pour off a friend, savored our first fiery sips, and those of us who had participated in that initial crop mob reveled in the full-circle knowledge that we were drinking a grain we had touched firsthand. Nose-deep in our glasses, we inhaled notes of nutmeg and toffee. The bourbon had an earthy nectar to it, a potency balanced by smoothness, with a sort of luxurious “silk sheet effect” on the tongue. Some of us spoke of cherry, vanilla, and cinnamon, while others swore to caramel and tobacco. The sheer fact that a corn alone could yield this complexity in a bourbon amazed us all.
The Future is Red
Fast forward to this year at Lavington, and the crop looks promising, yet Blackwell and Marshall never truly relax until the kernels are harvested, dried, and ready to mill. Indeed, a week after their visit to Lavington, Hagood calls to report that a cloud parked itself above his fields and rained for three days, delaying the harvest.
“Farmers are under a lot of stress,” says Marshall. “Until we started doing this we never really lived it and felt it. We never kept an eye on hurricane activity like we do now. Storms, tornados can take out a whole acre, so it’s high stakes, but it makes it all that more special when you come to the end of the summer and you’ve dodged all the bullets and you get a really nice yield and everything’s coming together.”
I breathe a sigh of relief when, on August 20, I see a Twitter image of Hagood kneeling in a bed of successfully harvested ruby kernels, a look of satisfaction on his face.
Lavington is one of four farms scattered throughout the Lowcountry currently growing Jimmy Red for High Wire, each bottle labeled with the specific farm of origin. To make matters even more interesting, Blackwell and Marshall have contracted famed geneticist Stephen Kresovich at Clemson to conduct tests on soil and plant morphology at each farm in efforts to track terroir-specific attributes as they journey from field to bottle, an idea familiar to the wine world but less common in the world of whiskey. Still in its nascent stages, the study will also trace the DNA of each crop to ensure that High Wire stays true to Jimmy Red in its purest form.
Little did Chewning know, when he planted that one cob over a decade ago, that the trajectory of these precious red kernels would lead to both widespread culinary experimentation and a very special, place-based bourbon. As for Chewning’s bottle from the 2016 release, he’s saving it for the birth of his first grandchild.
At High Wire, as reports of this year’s harvests roll in, a Faulkner quotation scribbled by Marshall in blue ink on a dry-erase board rings true. Marshall discovered the words in a 1956 edition of the Paris Review, and wrote them above the distillery’s conference table for inspiration and company vision. Faulkner, when asked about early writing epiphanies, responded, “I discovered my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about, and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
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