Understanding the terroir of Cherokee corn

Understanding the terroir of Cherokee corn

Today's whiskies are a blend of people, land and grain

Mythbusters | 12 Jan 2022 | Issue 180 | By Chris Middleton

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In the artisanal distilling movement, the French wine term terroir is readily borrowed for whisky. Some distillers studiously conduct product experiments, while others merely hype the notion of whisky terroir for marketing upsell.

Surprisingly, assigning flavour characteristics to regional and limited geographic confines is a long-entrenched whisky practice. Before the mid-19th century, America had a dozen regional whisky production styles, from Monongahela and Baltimore ryes to Kentucky bourbon and charcoal-rectified Tennessee whiskey. By the late 19th century, Scotland was divided into four, then seven, then five flavour-based whisky regions by the trade. Manufacturers of whisky have long claimed specific provenances, citing celebrated water sources, endemic yeast strains, regional processes, and the cultivation of favoured grain varieties by the local agronomy.

Archaeobotanists credit the domestication of barley, wheat, rye, and oat grasses to the semi-sedentary Natufians, who peregrinated between Jordan and Anatolia 10,000 years ago. However, the last cereal and cultural legacy that contributed to whisky is Native American corn. These first gestating corn seeds were planted 9,500 years ago in the Rio Balsas Valley, central Mexico. Neolithic communities selected and cultivated teosinte grass, which became Spanish maize.

Two types of corn took separate routes and timelines across the Americas, adjusting to different terrain and climates. Flint corn (Zea mays indurata) first immigrated as far north as Canada three millennia ago. Arriving 2,000 years later, the soft southern dent corn (Zea mays indentata) was cultivated by the Mississippi mound culture. The Keetoowah or Cherokee people took their southern white dents eastwards to cross-pollinate with the northern flints. The Cherokee ancestral lands occupied the cradle of America’s whisky-distilling heartlands, stretching from western Virginia to the Carolinas and northern Georgia, and west across into Kentucky, Tennessee and northern Alabama, too.

The Cherokee Nation bred the progenitor corn that is the lodestar grain for American whisky. The Cherokee organised a sophisticated trading network, even disseminating southern dents to the contiguous Iroquoian tribes. By the 17th century, they also traded with the European coastal settlements. Over the centuries, numerous varieties were cultivated by the different Cherokee clans as they adapted corn to the various regional environments, from mountain valleys to open woodlands. From these ancestral dent landraces, what the Cherokee call selu she-corn, derives the modern bourbon industry.

From the 17th century, European farmers began crossbreeding new varietals for use in household victuals, livestock feed and trade, notably value-added whisky. (A loaded packhorse carried four bushels of corn. Converted into eight gallons of liquid whisky, it reduced the weight by 75 per cent.)

As Kentucky bourbon prospered, distillers preferred local gourd-seed varieties of Kentucky yellow dent crosses. The white dent cross with red cob was the popular corn varietal for whisky mashing in Tennessee until the 1950s. Dents were larger, with better-yielding kernels and easier to grind on millstones, and considered better for fattening livestock and mashing for distillation. Durable flints were oilier, leading to noxious-tasting fusel alcohol, a problem for distillers, especially on the new patent bourbon steam stills.

In the Shenandoah Valley in the 1760s, Gordon Hopkins cultivated Cherokee dents. His neighbour, Robert Reid, took the late-bearing Hopkins white dent with red cob to Ohio, planting it in 1846. Reid and his son James invested many decades cross-pollinating with an early-ripening northern big yellow flint to breed the Reid’s Yellow Dent. By 1920, it was America’s most extensively grown corn. Today, Reid’s hybrids represent 99 per cent of the corn grown in the US.

The Natufians domesticated wild grasses into small grains mashed in European spirits, but Cherokee dent corn is the fountainhead grain for American bourbon and a living testament to cultural terroir.
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