Every summer, Tales of the Cocktail lights up New Orleans by bringing in the brightest of the spirits and hospitality industries to talk all things cocktail. None of it would be possible, however, without the grains that serve as the basis for most alcohol – or the farmers who grow them.

That’s why Tracie Franklin (@spirited_tracie) of Get Spirited Consulting dedicated an entire 90-minute educational session to the topic “Why Farmers and Distillers Should Be Friends.” The goal, she said, was to show how working together, the two industries can make better products, steward the earth and focus on how agriculture affects spirits and their flavors.

Joining Franklin on a panel were Bernard Peterson of Peterson Farms, a multi-generational grain operation in central Kentucky (and vice chair of the National Wheat Foundation), and Lisa Roper Wicker, owner of Saints and Monsters Distillery Consulting and past master distiller with Widow Jane.

Franklin’s talk was comprehensive, beginning with the history of agriculture going back to the “Fertile Crescent” more than 10,000 years ago. About 4,000 years ago, serious irrigation came into use. Early agriculturalists then turned from stone tools to bronze tools – and “this is when you actually had the opportunity to attach animals to plows to till faster, plant faster,” Franklin explained.

Other major advances were noted as well, including better use of fertilizers and selective crop breeding. Peterson, who grows heirloom corn for specific distillers, said other farmers like him are looking at plant offspring and picking the best ears to plant next year.

“As a step forward, we’ve learned how to hybridize corn using two unlike pairings,” he said. “Hybridization produces an offspring that out-produces its parents.”

Ag advancements continued to revolutionize the industry throughout history. For example, in 1867, the first cold storage rail car came into use, and with it, the ability to safely move produce across the U.S. Within the past two decades, GPS use has made planting, fertilizing, spraying and harvesting much more efficient too.

However, with that efficiency there come some tradeoffs. The number of American farms today is on the decline, but the remaining farms are growing larger, according to USDA data Franklin shared. The U.S. is mostly selling corn and soybean, and wheat is the country’s most exported crop.

What do American farmers want these days? The most common answers are good crop yield, strong seed generation/emergence, crop hardiness and reasonable costs.

“This is the big one,” Franklin said of cost. “And distilleries are taking on some of these agricultural costs.”

“Farmers are the biggest gamblers but distillers are right up there,” Roper Wicker said.

Peterson added, “We play the odds very well – we do the things that give us the best chance of success.”

What they don’t choose to play is “closest to the pin,” in the sense that mills carry the cost of freight. “Most mills choose farmers based on proximity,” Franklin explained. “It’s a very simple choice – you pick your farmer, or your grower, based on how close they are. On the distillery side … if you become friends with a farmer or miller then you can negotiate perhaps some higher quality source material.”

Why farmers and distillers should be friends

Tracie Franklin led a “spirited” discussion about the myriad reasons farmers and distillers should have strong relationships. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

That source material comes in a few different crop types, ranging from heirloom or heritage (not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture) to landrace (local cultivars that have been improved by traditional ag methods) to genetically modified (altered by lab-based genetic engineering).

“We learned heirloom corn was so much different than anything we’d done before,” Peterson noted. “It was so brittle, if you almost looked at it, it broke. Every time you touch it there’s a bunch of fines at the bottom. With yellow corn, we weren’t having those problems. We had to learn how to be more gentle with it to get through that.”

Roper Wicker added, “Heirloom corn is the flavor grain. We love yellow dent bourbon, but it is a high rye? Is it wheated? Those supporting grains are the flavor grains. With heirloom corn, you’re spending all this time and money because it’s like a grape varietal. They’re all very distinct … We’re trying to pull out all the best characteristics for whiskey.”

What matters to distillers? First, they want consistency, to ensure their starches and sugars are at the right levels. Grain quality control is huge for several reasons. In corn, for example:

  • Kernel quality – Consistent kernel size helps with malting; a hefty kernel typically has more starch; distillers need to watch out for heat and handling damage
  • Inclusions – As ag products, grains can include a number of foreign objects like stones, insects, other grains and more
  • Fungus – The smell of mildew or dampness can carry through to distillation; 2% visible fungus is allowed in Grade 1 corn
  • Moisture – From the field to the silo to the mill, moisture is essential for viability

Moldy, dusty grain can give the finished spirit a bitter flavor. Its mustiness comes from the presence of a chemical called geosmin. High moisture can cause milling issues, and excess moisture increases shipping costs, reduces mash ABV and increases the risk of mold above 6%.

In addition to that, climate change can impact both farmers and distillers. According to Arizona State University, each 1º C increase in global mean temperature would, on average, reduce global yields of wheat by 6% and corn by 7.4%.

Those issues aside, those growing grains for distillers have something else to consider – something heard more of in wine circles. That is terroir: the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced (most notably, the soil the grapevines were grown in).

“Once it’s past just the influence of the earth, we also have the influence of the barrel, the influence of distillation – we have all of these other elements that add to it which are not taking away from the fact that there is terroir, but we’re adding on top of the terroir,” Franklin explained. That’s why she’s in favor of another term – provenance.

“Provenance is owning all of the things have happened,” she said. “For me, this makes more sense.”

Franklin listed the following as provenance considerations:

  • Variety – Its yield, hardiness, flavor, starch levels, nutrients, lipid content, seed and open pollination
  • Climate – Weather, temperature, extreme events, water resources, sunlight and humidity
  • Soil – The terrain, type of soil, soil maintenance, fertilizer, mineral content, drainage, retention of heat and organisms
  • Tradition – Farming practices, equipment, spirit regulations, regional laws, fermentation and distillation style

For all these reasons, distillers should have relationships beyond simply purchasing grain from a farmer. Distillers want to know their source material, and more and more often, imbibers of finished product want to know more about it than just its ABV.

Distillers can support farmers by finding a joining a local CSA to get the freshest ingredients in season for unique beverages; by working with their local farm community and farming organizations and supporting nearby co-ops; and by taking farmers’ schedules into consideration – adjust calendars so that the varietals that can be profitable make sense for both parties.

by Courtney Llewellyn