I was in Kentucky last week, and I did not drink bourbon. Instead, I ended up with a bright yellow bottle of Mellow Corn, an cheap and obscure corn whiskey that has become suddenly trendy in certain Brooklyn and San Francisco bars.
In case you didn't know, Bourbon is having a national moment in the US. But on a recent trip to Kentucky, I decided to eschew the well-worn Bourbon Trail and look for more obscure paths. That's how I ended up at Heaven Hill's near-empty distillery on the Friday after Christmas.
Larry Kass, director of trade relations for Heaven Hill, which makes Mellow Corn as well as the perfectly respectable and wallet-friendly Evan Williams, had just led me on a tour of their Louisville distillery. I'm not your biggest whiskey drinker, but I had been peering curiously at whiskey's surging popularity.
Kass has worked on advertising and PR at Heaven Hill for 18 years, and he's watched the rise of bourbon et al from the inside. "People say, "We love bourbon, what else do you have?' There's not that many stops on that train," he said. There is, of course, rye whiskey, which has had its own surge. There's also white lightning, which c'mon seriously guys. And now there's Mellow Corn, a whiskey made with at least 80 per cent corn in the mashbill and aged for four years in a used oak barrel. (Bourbon, of course, is made with at least 51 per cent corn and is aged in unused oak barrels.)
I originally heard about Mellow Corn from article in the ever excellent Punch, which described it being served at San Francisco's Trick Dog and Brooklyn's The Drink. When I mentioned it to my boyfriend, a Kentucky native, he blinked in unrecognition and muttered something about hipsters. In fact, this is roughly the same reaction I got from a dozen people I unscientifically surveyed in Louisville last week. On the other hand, Kass told me that sales for Mellow Corn had gone up 46.5 per cent since 2000, and they've added 20 new markets across the country since 2010. That's why California and New York bars are getting hold of it. Mellow Corn may be small and not well-known, even inside Kentucky, but it's gaining a cult following across the country.
I think it is important to note here that Mellow Corn boasts a retro ugly but hip label unchanged since the 1940s, and Heaven Hill makes a Mellow Corn t-shirt that looks like something you'd find at Urban Outfitters.
But anyway, let's talk about the actual whiskey. At the end of our tour, Kass brought out a small bottle of newly distilled, unaged Mellow Corn along with a proper bottle of Mellow Corn.
Tasting Mellow Corn at the distillery
I first sniffed the unaged whiskey. It smelled like corn on the cob. I sipped it. It tasted like clear poison. This is, of course, why we age bourbon in charred wooden barrels. It was smart for Kass to pour us the unaged corn whiskey first—everything would taste good in comparison.
So how was Mellow Corn? Drunk neat, Mellow Corn does not taste as bad as its $15 (£8 pre-tax) price tag and 100 proof might lead you to fear. It doesn't quite have the caramel and spice notes of well-aged (and more expensive) bourbon. In a cocktail that complements its corn flavour, Mellow Corn really does add some lovely notes. I wouldn't go out of my way to find Mellow Corn, but I wouldn't turn it down either. And I accidentally stumbled upon a pretty good Mellow Corn cocktail.
Cereal Milk Punch
Left: Cereal milk punch, which is delicious. Right: Unaged Mellow Corn, which is disgusting.
I wish I could say I arrived at this recipe through some mixology know-how, but if we're being honest, it was a "what can I find in my fridge on New Year's Eve" kind of situation.
Luckily, I did have milk, which turned out to be a perfect accompaniment to Mellow Corn. Dairy takes the burn out of the 100 proof alcohol, bringing out the whiskey's toasty corn flavour. It's comfortingly reminiscent of cereal milk. I ended up adapting it from a milk punch recipe that originally called for bourbon.
1.2 litres of a mixture of whole milk
315 ml Mellow Corn
5 grams powdered sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
dash of nutmeg*
Mix the milk, Mellow Corn, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract together and place in the freezer for three to four hours until slushy. Alternatively—if you're lazy or can't wait—mix it up in a glass with a couple ice cubes. Top with nutmeg.
*Try cinnamon instead of nutmeg for a taste reminiscent of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Drinking booze, of course, has always been about more than the taste of the liquid itself—it's about tapping into a long tradition or a new trend. I ended up drinking the rest of my bottle on New Year's Eve in this cocktail. I might even make a new tradition of my own out of it.