While the sight of corn on the cob may bring barbecues – and butter – to most people’s minds, 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 liquids express aromas and flavours that transport you to the maize-rich hills of Jilotepec de Molina Enríquez, which 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, corn is creeping up in the percentage scale across more spirits categories – although whiskey is still at the fore 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”.
The flavour profile of corn-based spirits makes them exceptionally versatile in a cocktail. Savoury notes and grassy, peppery flavours make them the ideal bedfellow for using alongside other spirits, too. Most interestingly, though, corn whisky in particular can also be 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 at Destilería y Bodega Abasolo using 100% cacahuazintle corn, 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, toffee popcorn, roasted peaches and traces of vanilla from the ageing process, before moving into white pepper spice and more vegetal, savoury notes on the palate.
RRP £39.95, 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. Being classified as a straight corn whiskey means it is 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.
£33.45, The Whisky Exchange
Nixta Licor de Elote
From the same distillery, this liqueur is the most corn-forward of our selection. Farmers hand-select 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
Using a whopping 91% corn, this straight corn whiskey 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.
£33.95, Master of Malt
Nikka Coffey Vodka
Known better for its whiskies, Japan’s Nikka uses its Coffey stills to make a corn and malted-barley vodka, 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