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Indiana distiller wins coveted national award using local corn
William Flood
Ohio correspondent

ST. LOUIS — Ask a colleague what corn is used for and some version of it being foodstuff is the likely answer. If that colleague is a farmer, you’ll probably hear additional comments about corn used as livestock feed and maybe as an ingredient in biofuel. Rarely will corn’s application in whiskey come up, particularly related to craft spirits. Yet, the distilling outlet for corn is growing, driven perceptibly by local distilleries making a name for themselves.
Indiana is home to 22 distilleries, and that figure is destined to grow, meaning craft distilling — in-state or out — represents an increasingly conspicuous market.
In 2013, recognizing the rise of craft spirits, the American Craft Spirits Association was formed to help promote the industry. In 2017, they launched the Heartland Whiskey Competition, a biennial, blind-tasting contest open to craft distillers across the U.S. and its territories. This year’s competition was held in early August in St. Louis. 
At the event, the Indiana Corn Marketing Council (ICMC) joined 18 other state corn marketing associations in sponsoring their homegrown distillers. ICMC President Paul Hodgen, a farmer from Roachdale, Ind., lauded the efforts, “We’re happy to support the whiskey competition. With this competition, ICMC is reaching a non-traditional audience and educating them on alternate uses of corn.” 
Judging took place in multiple categories, including the “Best of State” award to a distiller’s product from each state with a corn association sponsorship. This year’s winner from Indiana was Hugh Hamer Straight Bourbon Rum Finish Cask Strength crafted by the West Fork Whiskey Company from Westfield, Indiana. 
West Fork co-founders Blake Jones and David McIntyre set out to “create sip-able, smooth whiskeys that are always made with 100 percent Indiana-grown grain.” They added, “Our spirits are 100 percent Indiana from grain to glass…[paying] respect to one of the best grain-producing states in America.”
The duo was motivated to pay homage to Indiana’s rich distilling history. “We decided to resurrect the Old Hamer brand, as it has a unique place in the history books of whiskey in Indiana.” It was based on a 19th-century recipe of 99-percent corn and 1-percent malted barley developed by Hugh and Thomas Hamer who settled Spring Mill, Indiana in the 1820s and ran a mill and distillery supplied with local corn. “In the 19th century, some called it the finest whiskey around,” McIntyre said. The original Hamer whiskey was sold as far south as New Orleans. West Fork’s rendition is just as popular, taking Indiana corn whiskey as far as New York and California.
Other awards included the “Top Farmer-Distiller’’ honor that recognized the best farm-to-bottle product. This year, farmer-distillers made up 32 percent of the entries, which was a record high. This year’s award went to a single barrel bourbon by Tobacco Barn Distillery of Hollywood, Maryland. Other medals went to corn-based spirits by distillers in Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, New York, and Ohio.  
Officials at the ACSA acknowledged how strong a role corn plays within the craft spirits industry and at the Heartland competition. CEO Margie Lehrman said, “Corn farmers, through their state corn associations, have supported the U.S. craft distilling industry through this important competition,” adding, “We greatly appreciate their continued support and the fact they supply our members with the best corn product in the world.”
Corn’s use in whiskey distilling has roots nearly as old as the country’s. In the 18th and 19th centuries, whiskey-making was a way for farmers to convert corn and bulky grains into a liquid product that was both more lucrative and easier to transport. Distilled liquor was nearly three times more valuable than the agricultural ingredients themselves. 
Back then, rural communities often built both mills and distilleries for processing part of the harvest. In Indiana, whiskey making can be traced to Lawrenceburg around 1802 when corn-based bourbon was becoming popular. Eventually, the entire Ohio Valley — including the eastern reaches of Indiana — developed a thriving corn-based whiskey industry. By the late 1800s, there were nearly 100 liquor-making enterprises statewide. Except for the illicit trade, virtually all of it died off during Prohibition. 
 Post-Prohibition, commercial distilling recommenced, but it took years for corn liquors to regain popularity. However, two decades ago, a craft cocktail movement spurred a revived interest in whiskey, including corn-based varieties like bourbon and moonshine. Mixologists took a shine to classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails like Sazeracs and Old Fashioned that were whiskey — and often bourbon — recipes. It fueled a rebirth of the country’s distilling heritage and corn went along for the ride. 
Alongside craft distilling is the “grain to bottle” movement that favors locally-grown, often organic ingredients. Distillers aim to produce artisanal products reflecting the flavors and quality derived from local sourcing. Many of Indiana’s 30+ craft distilleries make products using locally-sourced corn.
To learn more about the Heartland Whiskey Competition, visit: