Growing Heirloom Corn Connects Randolph County Distillery to Region's History, Flavor
Still Hollow Distillery isn’t close to any interstate exit. It’s in Randolph County, West Virginia, not far from the Pendleton County line, and it’s nestled in the high Allegheny mountains. You can only get there by driving curvy two-lane roads.
And like many former timber towns, Job, the community where Still Hollow is located, was once notorious in the area for its moonshine.
“It was a really good way for the local farmers to turn their corn into a cash crop by making whiskey,” said Athey Lutz, one of the distillery’s owners. “And then lumberjacks were well known for their appetite for whiskey on Saturday night.”
Traditionally, the farmers grew heirloom corn, which is grown from seed that's been passed down year to year. Most commercial corn is not grown from heirloom varieties.
But in the past few years, some craft distillers have begun tapping into heritage corn as a way to produce liquor with a more unique flavor.
When Athey Lutz and his wife started Still Hollow a year and a half ago, they bought about 7,000 pounds of heirloom corn from Edgar Meadows, in Nicholas County. The Meadows family has been saving this seed for more than 200 years.
The corn is called Bloody Butcher corn, one of the more well-known varieties of heirloom foods here in central Appalachia. The name Bloody Butcher refers to the flecks of red on the white kernels — like a butcher's apron.
So what’s the difference in taste when heirloom corn is used to make whiskey? Margie A.S. Lehrman is the CEO of the American Craft Spirits Association. She compares the difference between store bought, generic bread to the smell of homemade bread that your grandmother may have baked in her kitchen -- it has a richer and more interesting flavor.
And there’s something else that draws people to products made with heirloom ingredients, Lehrman said. “And they want to know the story behind it. So if they can connect that spirit to not only to the producer, but maybe even driving to the producer’s tasting room, they actually pass the fields where that product came from.”
Lehrman said customers are willing to pay more for a product that’s grown with heirloom corn.
“So oftentimes we’ll refer to spirits as value added agriculture. Because it’s the distiller that does the magic with the grain that produces what ultimately is in that bottle.”
According to Lehrman, since 2010, the number of craft distilleries in the United States has gone from 50 to 2,000. The increase comes at a time when American whiskey is at a crossroads. Whiskey makers in America are already feeling the pinch from new tariffs imposed by the European Union and other countries last summer.
One way to market their product locally, Lehrman said, is to use heirloom corn to make spirits that pack a more flavorful punch.
The taste of Bloody Butcher corn is enticing for some customers in rural West Virginia who may recognize the corn they grew up with, Athey Lutz said.
“Anyone that's ever had bloody butcher grits or cornbread can attest to that. And that's why it's been around so long as people really liked the flavor of it.”
The flavor of Bloody Butcher is subtle in the whiskey and gin they make — sort of a buttery, nutty flavor, similar to the way fresh roasted coffee gives off a warm, toasty taste.
But Lutz said profit isn’t their main reason for using heirloom corn. It’s also a way to connect with the local heritage in this area, and to support the local economy.
“When we first went to the Meadows’ place to get the original seed, they served us grits with maple syrup and it was just delicious, and we think it gives a special taste to the whiskey.”
And they have a special permit from the Department of Agriculture, since they now grow about a quarter of the corn they use themselves.
“So we're really proud to be able to keep on the West Virginia tradition of making corn whiskey and also able to keep this special seed alive.”
This is the third season Lutz has tried to grow bloody butcher corn on their farm. He says it is more expensive to grow it on their own, especially because they had to invest in the tools to harvest it. But he says customers seem to appreciate the circular nature of seeing the fields of red and speckled white corn, growing outside the distillery, then tasting it too.
This story is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring the alcohol culture and industry in Appalachia.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Athey Lutz' name, as well as the town name of Job, West Virginia. The updated version of the story reflects the accurate spelling.