How Distilling Almost Killed—Then Revived—One Of America’s Heritage Crops - Modern Farmer

How Distilling Almost Killed—Then Revived—One Of America’s Heritage Crops

Bloody Butcher Corn, once grown widely for use in moonshine, was on the brink of extinction until modern distillers brought it back from the dead.

Photography by Shutterstock

Along the eastern seaboard, there’s a growing network of folks interested in reanimating the dead—or, at least, the nearly dead. “There’s definitely a robust network on the eastern seaboard of people in brewing, distilling, academics and malting that are building on a lot of these storylines and getting some of these varieties back into the public’s hands,” says Brent Manning, certified cicerone (like a historian for beer and spirits) and co-founder of Asheville, NC-based Riverbend Malt House. 

He’s talking specifically about Bloody Butcher Corn—a hybrid of Hackberry Dent and Red Corn, with deep maroon kernels and a complex taste. It was named for the way it resembled a bloody butcher’s apron when milled. Prominent in the late 1800s in the United States, especially the Virginia area, it was used for corn meal, animal feed and even whiskey, seemingly securing its place in American farming heritage.

But at the height of the Industrial Revolution, that all changed. Corn became increasingly commercially grown and farmed, and many heirloom varieties of the crop decreased or even disappeared. American farmers mainly turned away from planting these legacy seeds as other varieties grew in prominence. 

“It’s a really interesting arc from the early days of colonizing America, which was growing whatever we could get. Then when we got into the industrial age, it was a very quick flip to just wanting something that we could make easily,” says Manning. 

It turns out that, by 1890, according to a research paper by David Shields, an English professor and heirloom foodways expert at the University of South Carolina, that “consistency achieved despite differences in weather, terroir, grain variety, and formulation” was the top priority for farmers. Add to that the addition of distillers looking to mute the flavor of the corn by adding other types of wheat and Shields says that, from then on, there was “large-scale adoption of Reid’s Yellow Dent and its descendants such as No. 2 Yellow Dent.”

Bloody Butcher tends to grow a lower yield than other types of corn, especially the yellow corn varieties. The increased demand for corn in larger quantities, namely in the distilling industry, ended up swaying farmers to plant corn for which they would get paid the most, says Manning. It is also a variety that, to this day, remains free pollinated. “Still today, if they plant [Bloody Butcher] too close to other varieties, they can still have a situation where it is not 100% red kernels that come out of the cob,” Manning explains. 

Photography courtesy of New Liberty Distillery.

Seeding and planting Bloody Butcher means crews need to stay vigilant, even in modern times. Distiller Joyce Nethery emphasizes that, since Bloody Butcher is open pollinated, the team at Jeptha Creed needs to be diligent about saving the seeds and monitoring the fields. And that’s not all. “Bloody Butcher, when you look at the field, its ears are everywhere,” she says. “In fact, sometimes, you need to use a stepladder to be able to pull it off the stalk. That also makes it top heavy, so in August thunderstorms, it falls over and lodges real easily, which has made it a challenge,” adds Nethery. 

Add to that the lower yield per acre and the round of handpicking that must be done, as the commercial machines aren’t as honed in to harvesting Bloody Butcher and other heirloom crops, and it may seem that the effort may not be worth the prize. 

While, historically, distillers thought that yellow corn was a richer product, according to Shields, it turns out that craft distillers today are seemingly returning to the heirloom roots. However, some distillers are proving that untrue. The flavors and nuances it is bringing back to the bourbon industry has had craft bourbon and rye professionals taking another look at this almost-lost corn. 

“We thought, ‘should we use the corn that everybody else has or do we want to try something new’’,” says Autumn Nethery, co-owner and marketing manager for Jeptha Creed (her mother, Joyce, is the master distiller and the distillery itself was a dream of her father, Bruce). “We have a home farm and we wanted this to be a farm-distillery. So, we grew the corn ourselves.”

Rob Cassell, founder, owner and master distiller of Philadelphia, PA-based New Liberty Distillery, also started growing his own corn—on just a single acre of land—to make classic corn moonshine. Cassell harvested and processed the corn himself, too.  

“What most folks love about this is how far off the beaten track it is from the typical notes of brown sugar and vanilla,” he says in an email, explaining that the corn pushes the liquid into savory and full-bodied notes of leather and stone fruit, without a cloying taste. 

“One of the things that you really get with Bloody Butcher is this nutty, sweet earthiness that you don’t get from yellow corn,” says Joyce Nethery, who uses the variety in all of its spirits. She also says there is a banana component to bourbon made with Bloody Butcher, and the sipper ends up being a lot more fruit forward than others. 

While the Nethery family still grows its own Bloody Butcher onsite, Cassell now prefers to locally source his corn instead of attempting to grow it on his own.“Sourcing grain is always the main challenge in that you need to ensure you can get it in bulk and that the farmer can grow with the product’s demand. Currently, though, we get the grain from Dancing Star Farms in Imler, PA,” he says. 

And, says Cassell, new bourbons using experimental corn varieties are poised for growth, especially in the craft distilling world, as consumers clamor for booze that has a story to tell.

“A limitation of larger distilleries is the issue of supply and demand. Working in true small batches allows the craft community to look to their local agricultural neighbors for the obscure and forgotten grains. It’s very cool to see fellow distillers reaching for the Bloody Butcher, Wapsie Valley, Blue Corn or any other heirloom variety as it further expands what whiskey can offer,” says Cassell. 

Bloody Butcher went from one of the most well-known corn varieties in the 1840s to virtually non-existence in the 20th century. While the slow food and farm-to-table movements were critical to reviving it, even in small numbers, there are plenty of brewers and distillers out there that are looking to give this crop a wonderful comeback story. 


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christopher ross
10 months ago

Can you eat it, fresh or dried? Pop it?

10 months ago

You can’t really have a discussion about heritage corns, especially Bloody Butcher, without including Gary Hinegardner at Woodhat Distillery. He is the Godfather of heritage corns- knows more than anyone.