Corn on the cob may bring barbecues – and butter – to most people’s minds, but there are some exciting things happening with the starchy golden seeds in the world of spirits. In summer 2020, two corn-based spirits arrived on British shores from Mexico: Abasolo whisky and Nixta Licor de Elote liqueur. Made using Mexican cacahuazintle corn, these drinks express flavours and aromas that transport you to the hills of Jilotepec de Molina Enríquez, where fields filled with maize happen to surround Abasolo’s distillery just north of Mexico City.
Using corn is a clever move for distillers. Of all the grains used for spirits, it carries the biggest yield, so producers can maximise the amount of alcohol from any given harvest. But its use is nothing new: bourbon whiskeys must legally use at least 51% corn in their mash bill while Irish whiskey is also known for its high corn content.
Indeed, the use of corn is creeping up across more spirits categories – although whiskey is still at the forefront of the trend. ‘I think corn whiskey has seen a slight rise in popularity due to more consumers looking deeper into the American whiskey category,’ says Benji Purslow, European brand educator at Heaven Hill distillery, who adds that corn whiskey ‘is essentially the predecessor to bourbon’.
Corn-based spirits have a flavour profile that makes them exceptionally versatile in a cocktail. Savoury notes and grassy, peppery flavours make them the ideal bedfellow alongside other spirits, too. Most interestingly, though, corn whisky in particular can also be used as a substitute for blanco Tequilas: ‘The grassy and vegetal nature somewhat mirrors that of the agave spirit and a good bartender can use this recipe adaptation to great effect,’ says Richard Ryan, managing director of drink producer and distributor Drinksology Kirker Greer.
Corn goes well with food, too. Jenny Griffiths of bottled cocktail company Distill + Fill imagines what Mellow Corn whiskey (which is used in the company’s Peach Tea + Corn Whiskey) would work well with: ‘I would instantly want to do barbecue, and things like barbecued peaches, honeycomb…simple, honest Southern food would be amazing.’
5 corn-based spirits to try
Abasolo el Whisky de Mexico
Made using 100% cacahuazintle corn at Destilería y Bodega Abasolo, Abasolo is Mexico’s first whiskey, and it’s made using the ancient method of nixtamalization, a process common in Mexican cookery where the kernels are softened by soaking in lime water before washing and hulling, which adds an earthy flavour to the grain. On the nose you’ll find toffee popcorn, roasted peaches and traces of vanilla from the ageing process, before this spirit moves into white pepper spice and more vegetal, savoury notes on the palate.
RRP £34.99, Master of Malt
Mellow Corn Whiskey
Known as the ‘bartender’s handshake’, Mellow Corn has been the welcome drink for bartenders in each others’ bars for years. As a straight corn whiskey, the drink must be distilled from a mash of at least 80% corn and aged for at least two years in a once-used bourbon barrel (Mellow Corn is aged for four). Made by Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky, as its name suggests, it’s mellow in profile, but has distinct corn and dried-banana notes to boot.
£33.95, The Whisky Exchange
Nixta Licor de Elote
From the same distillery as Abasolo, this liqueur is the most corn-forward of our selection. Farmers handpick the best ears of corn before putting the kernels through a roasting process and then marinating in the distillery’s corn distillate – they call their macerate the base madre. Buttered sweetcorn and grassy notes come through on the nose, while it drinks like a slightly savoury caramel.
RRP £34.95, The Distillery London
Bowsaw Straight Corn American Whiskey
This straight corn whiskey uses a whopping 91% corn and is distilled and matured in northern Kentucky. It’s aged in refilled American oak barrels and it delivers on flavour. Signature buttered popcorn is matched with chocolate bananas with warming spices – think cinnamon buns covered in vanilla icing.
£31.45, Master of Malt
Nikka Coffey Vodka
Japan’s Nikka might be better known for its whiskies, but it uses its Coffey stills to make a corn and malted-barley vodka, too – with the two grains distilled separately and carefully blended before being filtered through white-birch charcoal. Notes of malt and a milky mouthfeel are matched with a lingering sweetness.
£39.94, House of Malt