ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Knee-high by the Fourth of July is an old saying in corn country, and the old favorite varieties, called heirloom corn, have lots of new friends. Seed companies report that sales are way up. NPR's Noah Adams tells us about two projects trying to make heirloom corn profitable.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I love the old names - Painted Mountain corn, Bloody Butcher, Country Gentleman. And when I arrive on the front porch of Jennifer Gleason's hilltop farm in northern Kentucky, she probably tells me her favorite.
JENNIFER GLEASON: The Hickory King corn.
ADAMS: And this corn is a good part of her livelihood. Fifteen years ago, Jennifer Gleason, a longtime organic farmer, decided she needed to be raising more of what her family really should be eating.
GLEASON: I went to the local hardware store in downtown Maysville - which is no longer there now - a really old-fashioned one where you had the seeds in bins that you shoveled out and weighed, and it was the only corn that wasn't pink. All the other corn was coated with a fungicide.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRAIN MILL CHURNING)
ADAMS: This is Gleason's trusty grain mill on a table in her workshop.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRAIN MILL CHURNING)
ADAMS: She grinds hickory king corn for several products.
GLEASON: With time, I learned it was an open-pollinated heirloom variety best known for making great moonshine, making hominy, animals love it as fodder.
ADAMS: Jennifer Gleason's farm is a tiny factory. She makes lots of soap, jars of jam, pickled asparagus, cornmeal, grits, hominy and her new Hickory King corn chips in 12-ounce bags, selling well in nearby counties. Two local farmers help her grow enough grain. And that notion of someday, someone making whiskey from heirloom corn? There's an experiment right now doing just that at Buffalo Trace Distillery, west of here on the Kentucky River.
HARLEN WHEATLEY: All the grain from the farm, we dried it in a silo and then we brought it in, ground it and it's been fermented about five days. We're going to distill it today.
ADAMS: Harlen Wheatley. He's the master distiller, and he's watching over this project. The old corn is a local favorite called Boone County White.
WHEATLEY: 'Cause the stuff was 15 feet tall and the ears - some of the ears were 24 inches long. We were pretty excited when we saw the ears, but the problem was there was only one or two per stalk.
ADAMS: They had a good enough crop for 117 barrels. The whiskey being distilled on this day will age in a warehouse for six years. No one knows what it might end up tasting like, but the company wants something perfect.
AMY PRESKE: No bourbon has ever scored a hundred points.
ADAMS: Amy Preske, of Buffalo Trace. She's talking about the taste test, when the whiskey writers get together and sip and decide, and the company's marketing department loves to send out stories about elegantly-dressed gentlemen who once made fine whiskey. Pappy Van Winkle is the best-known. E.H. Taylor was one of the founders of the distillery, and this new bourbon will be offered in his name.
PRESKE: We like things that have, you know, good history behind them because that's basically what marketing is about is telling good stories.
ADAMS: And Buffalo Trace is now starting the second year making bourbon from the old varieties. Crop number two, Japonica Striped corn, on this Fourth of July is 12 inches high. Noah Adams, NPR News.
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