“[T]here is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9
I am hoping that there’s an exception to this rule in the corn fields of Indiana, grown under our bright Midwestern sunlight. You see, I have shelled out a significant sum on a bottle which promises – at least on paper – to be totally unlike anything I have ever tried before.
You might recall my conversation with Jason Fruits of Old 55, in which he discussed their sweet corn bourbon. The germane part of that discussion is reproduced here:
“What we’re a lot more world-famous for, what we’re known for, is this sweet corn. We make the world’s only sweet corn bourbon. So, we grow corn on the cob, just like we eat all summer long, except we make bourbon out of it.
We should have known when nobody else did it… that should have been the first clue. I always say this: we’re the only ones in the world who make that because we’re the only ones in the world dumb enough to make it. It is obnoxious to say the least, man. The redneckery involved in making that is crazy.
It’s 100% corn mash bill. It just has this sweet corn… so much so that we actually classify on our tax records the sweet corn as a different corn. The TTB loves us doing that. It doesn’t act like corn. It’s almost a different commodity; it’s such a different hybrid, a different strain. We’re using the sweet corn for something it’s not intended to be used for. #2 dent corn is made to be dried down to 14-16%, put it in the bin, tons of starch, used for sweetener, you name it. People use corn for everything.
The sweet corn, we’ve been genetically modifying that. For instance, our sweet corn is technically organic. We could get an organic label on that because we plant it organic and we don’t spray it; it’s just not something we really care about. It’s not the market we really go to; if we were closer to Chicago, that would probably work out. We’re in the middle of corn country; farmers want Roundup Ready #2 dent, man. They know the deal; we have to feed the masses.
We’re just using that sweet corn. That particular breed of corn is made to be the best when it’s sweet and ripe and on the vine. It doesn’t stand; why would you ever breed sweet corn to have strong stalks, because you never harvest it? The field looks like Armageddon, it’s all falling down. I call it the witching hour; we have like four or five days to get it off the ground before it all rots.
Last year was the worst ever. We usually get about six wagonfuls of it. I’ll make anywhere from 15 to 25 barrels of it. That’s all we can make. Costs us a fortune. Last year, I made four barrels. That’s all we got. That’s just how it is.
I always tell people: there’s basically three reasons why that sweet corn is so expensive. One is the cost of seed. A bushel of regular corn, I think my dad is paying like $5.30, or $5.40, is what the Chicago Board of Trade is today. A bushel is 56 pounds. 50 pounds of the sweet corn that we plant is $1,400. This will be the ninth year that we plant sweet corn.
Let’s say you have the acreage and you can grow it just like we can; I don’t really care that much about $2,800. It’s piddling in the bigger scheme of things. But, if someone wanted to mash that, a single mash bill would cost $60,000, $70,000, depending on how big. It would literally make it unaffordable.
We grow it, so then I have it. That’s really where the family business comes in: we know how to store and make grain viable and harvest it. You put this on these peanut carts, you dry it. We almost hand-malt it; I jump in there, I have to flip it to make sure it’s all dried out. It’s garbage, man. The sweet corn is a love-hate relationship: everybody loves it, and I hate it. But it is an awesome product. It’s a lot of work, man. I always hope people enjoy it because it is a lot of work.
Finally, the third thing is the opportunity cost that we lose. Year before last I got 19 barrels of sweet corn; that took me seven weeks to distill. In seven weeks I can distill 120 barrels of bourbon. That’s just how slow it is. A six-hour, seven-hour distillation goes to 14; on that 14-hour distillation I get a third, and I already keep a third anyway because we do 100% heart cut. I’m just cutting myself back and forth; it’s just exhausting.
Nobody can afford to lose that kind of money doing it. I always have people saying “Well, just buy another still and run sweet corn on that one.” You don’t understand business or economics, because then I would just run bourbon on that still, too. It never makes sense, we just keep making it as a loss leader. Because it is cool that we’re the only ones that make it. There are some other distillers that will put like, some sweet corn in here and there. Like Roy Neeley down at Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky. His grandpa’s old shine recipe has, like, a couple handfuls. It’s literally a distiller’s nightmare.”
This sales pitch had me interested. The asking price for the Bottled in Bond Sweet Corn expression is currently $175, reflecting the aforementioned expense of the raw materials and the difficulty of making the stuff. I made a mental note to myself to snag a bottle if I ever saw one, which – to this day – I have not.
However, an email hit my inbox this March that I was unable to resist. Old 55’s 2021 Holiday Release, delayed by supply chain issues (not least of which involved the Glencairn decanter from Scotland) had finally become available. Four single barrels of the Sweet Corn Bourbon were being released… but at a price, and what a price it is!
This bottle (700 ml, for the record) was $300, before tax and shipping. That’s about as much as I have ever paid for a whiskey and – as noted by a keen-eyed Twitter follower of mine – is a significant premium to the (already comparatively expensive) Bottled in Bond Sweet Corn Bourbon. I brought this up to Jason, who responded thus: “This premium [is] due to barrel strength and the decanter… decanter was made by Glencairn and [the] box was custom made for us… [it’s] about $60 in just box and bottle.”
Our more cynical readers would note that you can’t drink a box or bottle, and I’d agree with them. I understand, however, that this was meant to be a holiday release (presumably for gifting) and that packaging might matter a little bit more in this case. Regardless, I will be using the full purchase price to evaluate this.
I took the plunge and bought a bottle; the allure of the 100% sweet corn mash bill, presented at barrel proof, was too much to resist. I’m conscious, however, that this raises the bar to almost Himalayan heights. What will I be looking for in this bourbon to justify such a hefty price tag? I go back to my normal framework: it will have to have diverse aromas and flavors, presented in such a way as to be individually distinguishable, but which interact harmoniously with one another in order to present a cogent experience overall. It will need to have breadth as well as depth, power as well as poise, intensity as well as elegance. In other words: to get a score even a notch above average, this will have to be damn near perfect, or at least so unique as to flummox any attempt to compare it with anything else.
Having conversed with Jason a few times, I know he’s the type of distiller that would gladly put his best product to this test, despite the rigor. In my interactions with him he has expressed nothing but confidence; I’m going to give him a fair shake on this one, but nothing more. The die is cast; we’ll see how they come up for this double nickel that costs 6,000 nickels.
Final details: this is bottle #43 from barrel 17C3. Aged five years, it comes to us at full strength, 62.7% ABV in this case. As noted above, I paid $300 for it.
Old 55 Single Barrel Sweet Corn Bourbon – Review
Color: Polished mahogany.
On the nose: Appropriately, an initial whiff of freshly polished wood furniture yields to some very sumptuously rich sweetness. There’s caramelized brown sugar here, but also an incredible note of very ripe stone fruit. Picture the moist, pulpy flesh of a nectarine or an apricot that is so ripe as to be nearly liquefying. There’s a Christmas-y topnote of pine bough and some cheerfully spicy notes. There is, indeed, a corniness to this, but of the most decadent variety; it’s buttery and creamy and impossibly rich.
In the mouth: This is immediately expressive, greeting the tongue with a spicy kiss of cinnamon and some sticky, syrupy flavors. This transitions to a sweeter cinnamon candy flavor of Red Hots as it approaches the middle of the mouth. The high ABV sings out for an instant in a peppery burst that tingles the roof of the mouth. Flavors of sarsaparilla and molasses carry this toward the back of the mouth, where this evinces more of the aforementioned herbal and spicy elements, again very suggestive of Christmas. All these flavors – sweet, rich, woody, and spicy – knit together completely for a final chorus before this fades into the long, gently warm finish.
As I said: the price tag affixed to this demanded a bourbon like no other, and this is a bourbon like no other. To revisit my evaluation rubric: there’s great diversity of aromas and flavors, and they express themselves as individually and as confidently as the distiller that brought them to life. The overall presentation is so pleasant as to lull the taster into abandoning their critical faculties and just going along for the hedonistic ride, which is indeed a pleasurable one.
However, when I slow down and focus, I am able to fixate on each of the component elements in isolation. They’re entrancing in that they suggest – powerfully in cases – their own nuances, yet remain well integrated enough that they defy simplistic description.
Some great bourbons are like an Ivan Albright painting, in which each detail is rendered with a clarity so precise that it becomes almost hallucinatory. This bourbon is not like that; rather, it is an Impressionist masterpiece as deftly crafted as anything from the hand of Monet or Degas, in which a series of strokes combine to suggest far more than is selectively signified by them individually.
I’m torn between enjoying the rest of this bottle and distributing it immediately to the most discerning bourbon savants I know. I’d buy another bottle (if there were one available, which there is not) in a heartbeat.
How does this all net on Malt’s scoring framework? I paid for something sui generis and got it, plus a lot more. Not perfect, necessarily, but certainly a memorable experience without an obvious analogue at any price. Following the rules we’ve agree on, and in consideration of the astronomical price, I am left to conclude that this is “exceptional” and am scoring it accordingly.