Exploring Flavor and Yield of Heirloom Corn Varieties for Spirit Production

Progress report for FNC20-1219

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $17,530.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2022
Grant Recipient: IDEA Farm Network
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Will Glazik
Cow Creek Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Silver Tree Beer & Spirits and Sumpy's Spirits are both farm distilleries. We raise all of the grain that we distill. We have both been raising heirloom corn varieties including Bloody Butcher, Rebellion, Wapsie Valley, and OP White.


In the United States, and particularly in the NCR-SARE region, corn is king. Specifically, yellow dent corn. This crop is used for a wide variety of products, including whisky. But is it making the best tasting whisky? Probably not. And growing thousands upon thousands of acres of yellow dent corn certainly doesn’t foster biodiversity, soil health, wildlife habitat, or many of the other positive ecological impacts of a more varied crop rotation.


For most farmers to commit to growing a new or different crop, they need to know where the market is. Where are they going to sell this product that they’ve spent the past year preparing for, planting, tending, harvesting, and storing? The spirits industry is rapidly growing in the Midwest and many distilleries are willing to pay a higher price for unique quality products. So, what might those products be? To find out, we will grow out five heirloom corn varieties for distillation at the University of Illinois Pilot Processing Lab (U of I). After distillation is complete, a panel of flavor testers will convene for a tasting at the U of I to sample the distillates and compare results.

Project Objectives:
    1. Distill six batches of unaged whisky: five batches of heirloom corn varieties and one batch of yellow dent corn
    2. Conduct HPLC and GC tests to determine the chemical compounds in each of the corn samples
    3. Measure the efficiency of alcohol conversion for each of the six batches
    4. Convene a blind panel of tasters to sample and compare the flavors of the five heirloom corn varieties and yellow dent corn
    5. Share findings with area farmers and distillers through the Artisan Grain Collaborative, ReGenerate Illinois, and University of Illinois networks.
    6. Share/present finding at Midwest grain conferences in 2021 and with distillers guilds.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Will Glazik - Producer
  • Adam Stumph - Producer


Materials and methods:

For this project, we will distill five open-pollinated heritage corn varieties: Bloody Butcher, OP White 103, Rebellion, Hopi Blue, and 8 Row Flint. For the control, we will distill conventional yellow #2 dent corn.


The U of I has a distillation system (see attached photo) where all the grain processing and spirit production will occur. Prior to distillation, U of I will run HPLC and GC tests on the grain to determine chemical composition. The distillation process will be completed at the 100 gallon scale and the unaged distill will be tasted at identical proofs to ensure any variation in flavor or likability is due only to the grain itself. The U of I lab will follow industry-approved standardized distilling practices vetted by a professional distiller.  


For the tasting at the University of Illinois, we will bring together a group of tasters including a liquor industry representative, an academic, a farmer, and a Certified Spirit Educator. The tasters will blindly rank the spirits for traits including appearance, nose, palate, finish, mouthfeel, and throat burn. Following the test, we will host a public education event to share information about heirloom corn varieties with the public.


Results will be compiled and consolidated into a one-page research brief to be distributed digitally among Midwest farmer listservs including the OGRAIN listserv and the IDEA Farm Network listserv. The one-page brief will also be shared on social media accounts and posted to Artisan Grain Collaborative’s website, and shared with area media outlets. The Artisan Grain Collaborative will organize a conference call among their Brewing & Distilling Working Group members to share information, and we will travel to Midwest grain conferences in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to present research findings. Finally, we will connect with the Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin Distillers Guilds to present findings at their meetings.  

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Consultations

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Once we have our findings, we will present at conferences and via Zoom meetings. We will also publish our results in farming and distilling journals. 

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Currently we have acquired 5 heirloom corn varieties and 1 GMO yellow dent variety. We are working with a distiller to build a protocol for distillation. We should have white whiskey samples in early 2021. There is a lot of interest from farmers and distillers to learn the outcomes of this project.  

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Success stories:

While talking to distilleries, there is a lot of interest in the outcomes of this project. Many distillers are interested in making the best whiskey possible and are wanting to purchase local grains directly from farmers. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.