Three immigrants came together in North America to set the scene for the development of American whiskey. By the 1500s, the Cherokee people spread south into the southeastern woodlands while Mexican dent corn advanced northeast into the woodland region. The next immigrants appeared on the eastern seaboard during the 1600s arriving with small household copper stills. The convergence of these three immigrants led to the slow gestation of America’s native spirit, and more.
When European explorers ventured into the southeast hinterlands, they encountered Cherokee clans, observing they fermented wine from berries, persimmon and native grapes, as well as making a lightly fermented corn gruel called kanâhe’na. Their society dissuaded forms of inebriation, so alcohol served only incidental ceremonial and medicinal functions. Before the European intrusion, Cherokee lands covered much of Tennessee and Kentucky, the western Virginias and Carolinas, across to northern Georgia and Alabama.
This region was the southern dent corn bowl and the corn cradle for American whiskey. It also cultivated another cultural phenomenon, the music that would make America. Analogous to whiskeys’ mixed grain bills this region was the ethnic crucible where Indian beats, chants and rhythms mingled with African and European musical traditions and bloodlines to become the wellsprings of modern American music genres. From the father of the Delta blues, Charlie Patton, to Elvis Presley to Jimi Hendrix many influential blues, country and rock & roll musicians had Cherokee descendants. The partnerships of bourbon and blues share common historical origins and contemporary sociabilities.
As the Mexican dents immigrated into North America, passing through the Mississippi agrarian mound-building culture, a new landrace developed into the Southern white dent. The white dents were unable to synthesize pigments; allowing the Cherokee to cross varieties of the hard-kernel northern flints (established in North America over two millennia earlier), these breeding introgressions resulted in hybrid improvements and variegations in kernel color. These Cherokee dents became the progenitor corn for the production of American whiskey and bourbon. Dent corn contains more soft starch and an oilier kernel, making it easier for hand-grinding and European-style gristmills using buhrstones. Because of their easily identified crease or dent in their kernel, the Cherokee called them she-corn.
The cornfields surrounding each settlement were cultivated by clan women who planted, harvested and bred local varieties. Including the most sacred corn taken on their exile to Oklahoma: Cherokee White Eagle, a blue-black speckled white corn with red cob. Cherokee’s white dent cornfield genetic diversity was a consequence of the different clans cross-breeding in conditions as varied as the undulating hills of Middle Tennessee to the deep valleys in the Appalachian Mountains. The Cherokee word for corn is Selu, the name of their corn goddess. Her spiritual locus is embodied in the annual Green Corn Ceremony, marking the cycle of harvest and renewal.
By the end of the 18th century, European expansion had dispossessed the Cherokee from much of their lands. In 1838, the US Government removed them from their remaining homelands and marched them west on the tragic Trail of Tears. Not all Cherokee were removed forcibly to Oklahoma; many remained undetected on their ancestral lands. Their corn, as well as their songs and bloodlines surreptitiously integrated into the lives of the new settlers and slaves by inculcating the fountainheads for American music and whiskey.
Breeding the progenitor corn for modern whiskey
Two of the major types of corn are dents (Zea mays indentata) and flints (Zea mays indurate). Both evolved from divergent breeding histories originating in central America. When Europeans first cultivated the varieties of indentata, they named it after the kernel’s indentation and also characteristic shape with the monikers of gourdseed, shoepeg and horsetooth. By the early 19th century, European farmers began actively selecting and breeding dent varieties to increase yield, starch, disease resistance, and acclimitize to the local agronomy, seasons and environmental conditions.
New varietal names were attributions to the breeding farmer, place or a character trait the corn exhibited: Mosby’s White Prolific, Tennessee Mammoth White or Extra Early White. America’s ubiquitous modern yellow dent variety is traceable to Robert Reid. One of the first settlers in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia he was given a white kernel with red cob semi-gourd seed by his neighbour, Gordon Hopkins. Hopkins first bred this late-bearing dent from Cherokee stock in the early 1760s. Reid moved to Russellville Ohio in 1847, crossing Gordon Hopkins with an early ripening Northern Big Yellow flint.
His son James Reid doggedly bred successive generations over forty-six years and in 1891 exhibited his apex corn, the variety that became the mother of modern American corn production. Reid’s mail-order business saw this variety quickly spread across North America and exported to South America and Australia. In 1898, the Department of Agriculture recognised 583 varieties of commercial corn; seventy years later, over 75% of American corn under cultivation was Reid’s Yellow Dent.
Corn’s transformation into spiritus frumenti
In the second half of the 19th century, corn constituted over 90% of the grain mash in American whiskey, the behemoth corn whiskey distilleries in Peoria IL, Pekin IL and Terra Haute IN produced nearly 80% of America’s whiskey. Today, Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey dominate production with their corn mashes constituting on average over 75% of the grain bill. Corn has played a central role in American mash formulas since the first colonists distilled whiskey in the early 17th century. Relatively little whiskey distillation occurred until after the War of Independence as cheap rum was America’s most popular spirit. Consumption declined due to high duties on imported molasses compounded by rum’s stigma as a British colonial spirit.
Whiskey was readily substituted as grain production surpluses increased, lowering the cost of goods with rustic stills proliferating across the rural landscape, making spiritus frumenti accessible from backwoods settlements to coastal cities. Early American distillers learnt to gelatinise the corn starches by cooking and mashing at higher temperatures than the European grains. During fermentation, the corn’s germ in the mash presented distillers with a unique problem as the yeast catalyses significant volumes of oil. Floating to the surface corn can produce as much as 16 gallons of oil from one hundred bushels, or 5 gallons per 1,000 gallons under pre-Civil War production practices. Old Southern white dent and Cherokee varieties contained significantly more oil than flints, which made them better suited for flour and esteemed by early distillers.
Fermenting conditions could also exacerbate the oil problem as different yeast strains, high ferment temperatures, low pH and low nitrogen affected the yeast’s metabolic rate, increasing the exudation of oil. Excess corn oil was usually scooped off the surface and discarded before distillation, deemed unwholesome as it risked further contamination of the raw whiskey during distillation. Distillation brought other risks as the corn oil in the wash was prone to producing undesirable fusel alcohols. Some fusel alcohols vaporize at temperatures higher than the distiller’s targeted ethyl alcohol (78C boiling point) and water (100C), with butyl (118C), amyl (131.6C) along with other alcohols leaving a residual oily consistency.
The late 18th-century invention of the triple chambered wooden patent still with a semi-continuous doubler, intensified this problem. In traditional pot distilling most of the fusel oils fell as residual waste in the pot ale (singling run) and spent lees (doubling run). Batching the runs also permitted a settling period for remaining fusel oil to separate in the low wines receiver. The distiller could draw off the surface oil from the low wines receiver before distilling the second batch into high wines, or proof spirit. American charger stills did not permit easy removal until after the 1870s when continuous bourbon column stills were engineered with decanters to capture and remove most fusel oils.
In 1816 before the abolition of spirit duties, US Treasury reported 37,880 stills, 650 using steam boilers for patent stills. As distilling expanded and distilleries installed more patent stills the excessive volumes of fusel oil led to new industries. In 1839, Isaiah Jennings of New York combined two parts turpentine, equal parts ethanol and corn oil to create a cleaner and brighter burning oil to sperm oil. Cincinnati in 1860 was a major center for corn distillation. Over one-third of its distilled grain spirit was sold as ‘burning fluids’ with Porter’s patented Camphene mixture the top seller: one-part turpentine, four-parts alcohol and corn oil, scented with camphor. The City used over seven million gallons of whiskey distillate and corn oil a year for illumination, the equivalent of twelve thousand bushels of corn a day.
After the Civil War in 1870, there were only 864 registered distilleries and most employed patent stills using multi-chambered wooden charger stills. The massive amounts of fusel oil from the corn explains the huge rectification industry in North America during the 19th century. The most popular methods of rectification were charcoal filtration and extra distillation, using rectifying or the new stripping columns, practised by large distilleries in towns and cities where small rural distillers supplied fusel-infused ‘common whiskey’.
In the 19th century, distillers in Kentucky favoured yellow gourdseed and Virginia yellow dents, while in Tennessee, the most popular variety was Tennessee Red Cob white dent. These regional varieties remained popular prior to the First World War when Reid’s Yellow dent began its ascendency. Fifty years later, white dents and heirloom varieties were less than 1% of the harvest and disappearing from mash bills. In the 1950s, white dent (Grade 1 Tennessee) was no longer specified for the grain bill by the last distillery to use this variety.
While the new linage of yellow dent triumphed in whiskey distilling, the constant remained the germplasm from the original landraces of Cherokee white dent corn. In 2019, genetically modified corn held 92% of US production. Amongst the shrinking 8% was non-GMC yellow dent, requisitioned by most bourbon distilleries since the EU mandated GMO statements on labels two decades ago. This cohort also includes farmers and distillers putting heirloom and heritage corn back under the plough and into the grain bill.
Many of these pioneer dent sub-varieties promise to add subtle flavour nuances to 21st-century whiskey. And what of the early Cherokee white progenitor corns? March 2020, Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault received the first sample of Native American corn, Cherokee Eagle White dent, to safeguard their valuable genes for posterity.
Chris Middleton is from the whisky industry and writes about whiskey too. After an international career in the whiskey industry he has an insider’s perspective on the history, production, product innovation and cultural marketing of whisky from manufacturing countries of Scotland, Ireland, to North America, and his home in Australia....