Corn Based Spirits

"Lend me your ear"

By: Samantha Davis

Corn, also known as maize, was first planted and domesticated by the Mayans and
other indigenous people of Southern Mexico around 9,200 years ago. Scholars
pinpoint the region to the Balsas River Valley, located in south-central Mexico. Here,
the temperate, subtropical climate and seasonal rains make for ideal ‘corn’ditions
for growing the crop.

Corn was cultivated throughout the Americas within two periods: 5,000 years ago
the crop spread through the highlands of the Andes and 2,000 years ago the crop
was introduced to the lowlands of South America. It was then brought to North
America via population migration around 2100 BC. After Spanish settlers arrived in
the States in the late 1400s, they brought corn back to Europe, where it was
introduced to other European countries and later spread to West Africa. As for Asia,
there is evidence that corn was abundant in India by the 13 th century.

Interestingly, corn is not a plant that can exist naturally in the environment- it must
be planted and conserved by humans for it to flourish. Because of its long history of
domestication, corn is now unable to independently reproduce.

Today, there are about 250 subspecies of corn throughout the world. However,
there are only five basic types from which these subspecies are derived- dent corn,
flint corn, popcorn, sweet or vegetable corn and waxy corn. Due to its ability to grow
in diverse climates, corn has become the most popular and widely grown crop in the
western hemisphere. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, U.S.
corn growers produced 15.1 billion bushels of corn in 2016.

Corn itself has had many uses throughout the years. It was produced on an
extremely large scale in early civilizations and was a primary component of diets.
While corn is still used as a food source for both humans and animals today, the bulk
of corn that is harvested does not go to food production. Instead, it is used to help
make items such as plastic, batteries, cosmetic and hygiene items, medicine and

While corn is important for nutrition and food, it is an equally important component
in liquor. Most, if not all, spirits are distilled from corn- namely bourbon, which is
classified as a whiskey and is a barrel-aged distilled spirit. Dubbed as “America’s
Native Spirit,” bourbon started appearing in the late 18 th century when a clergyman
named Elijah Craig shipped barrels of whiskey downriver from Bourbon County,
Kentucky to New Orleans. Instead of purchasing new barrels to ship the whiskey in,
Craig would clean and disinfect used fish barrels, made from American white oak, by
burning the insides of them. As the whiskey made its way down the river in a 90-day
trip, it would age in the charred oak, resulting in a distinct, smooth taste and reddish color. Those on the receiving end of this new spirit would then ask for “that whiskey
from Bourbon” and the name stuck.

Today, there are legal requirements for bourbon made for U.S. consumption. It must

  • Produced in the United States
  •  Made from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn
  •  Aged in charred oak barrels/uprights
  •  Distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume
  •  Put into the barrel for aging at no more than 62.5% alcohol by volume
  • Bottled at 40% alcohol or more

Bourbon is strongly associated with southern states, especially Kentucky. There is
also Tennessee whiskey, which is bourbon produced in Tennessee. The main
difference is that Tennessee whiskey is put through a charcoal filtering process.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, $3.1 billion was made
in the United States from sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

Other corn-based spirits include certain vodkas, a popular brand being Tito’s. Vodka
that is distilled from corn often has a sweeter aftertaste than those made with grains
such as wheat or rye. For a spirit to be labeled as “vodka” in the United States, it
must have a minimum alcohol content of 40%. Everclear is another spirit that is
made from corn; some types hone in at 190-proof, or 95% alcohol. Several states
have banned the drink due to its alcohol content, but it was awarded a silver medal
at this year’s SIP Awards for taste. Corn whiskey is made from at least 80% corn and
is marketed as the legal version of moonshine. This type of whiskey is usually
unaged and distilled to a maximum strength of 80% alcohol by volume.

There is also no shortage of corn infused cocktails, which have become popular in
the heat of the summer. Corn can be juiced, pureed or muddled and used to create
unique and flavorful cocktails. Here are a few interesting and delicious concoctions:

The Sweet Corn Coktail (Photo Courtesy of Serious Eats)

The Sweet Corn Coktail (Photo Courtesy of Serious Eats)


  • Sweet Corn Cocktail – This light drink combines sweet and milky corn kernels with rum to create a delicate drink with bold and bright flavors.
  • The Cornelia – This mezcal based cocktail is inspired by chilled corn soup and packs a slight punch.
  • The Yum Kaax – This one is fittingly named for the Mayan maize god and combines mezcal, lime and corn juice.
  • The Alma Blanca - This cocktail is infused with muddled corn kernels and habanero tequila for a one-of- a-kind flavoring.

Recipes courtesy of Serious