By Jon Herskovitz
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (Reuters)

A master distiller and a crop scientist who specializes in corn breeding are working on a project they hope one day will make whiskey drinkers think of Texas in the same way as lovers of American wine think of California

Seth Murray, a top corn breeder at Texas A&M University, and Rob Arnold, who is working on a doctorate at the school while making whiskey for a Fort Worth distiller, are trying to develop unique and commercially viable strains of corn that will bring distinct tastes to whiskey.

 

A bottle of whiskey is photographed at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
A bottle of TX Whiskey is photographed in the TX Tavern at the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

The project could change whiskey production by providing new types of corn, reshaping the industry’s reliance on grain not specifically bred for making into spirits.

The idea is to develop strains of corn to make whiskeys with unique and identifiable flavors, in the same way as specific grapes define the taste of, say, a Sonoma Valley zinfandel or a Bordeaux produced in southwest France.

 

A bottle of whiskey is photographed at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
Seth Murray, an associate professor at Texas A&M University (R) senses whiskey varieties at the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 23, 2018. Picture taken on May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

“Nobody has ever done that before,” said Murray, an associate professor at Texas A&M’s Department of Soil and Crop Science, who is running the project.

At present, most major American distillers make their whiskeys with similar types of yellow corn grown from seeds developed in the U.S. Midwest and designed to produce high yields.

 

Employees package whiskey at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
Employees package TX Whiskey at the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

“We were missing all the unique flavors that can live in corn varieties,” Arnold said.

In 2017, over 23 million nine-liter cases of American whiskey were sold in the United States, generating over $3.4 billion in revenue for distillers, according to industry group the Distilled Spirits Council.

 

Co-founder Leonard Firestone outside beer still at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
Co-founder Leonard Firestone opens passage to the beer still at the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Bourbon is one of the most popular kinds of American whiskey. Stored in charred oak barrels, bourbon is made from a grain mash that is at least 51 percent corn, though most brands are about 70 to 80 percent. Other types of whiskey also use corn as a main ingredient in the mash.

With similar strains of corn used in most mass-produced bourbons, most brands derive their distinct flavor from yeasts used in fermentation and barrels where the spirits age. Kentucky bourbon producers also like to say the limestone-filtered water in the region is a key to their products’ taste.

 

Signs are seen at entrance to Firestone & Robertson Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas
Signs are seen at the entrance to the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Murray and Arnold want to go a step further. They are mixing and matching corn varieties from Latin America and heirloom varieties from North America, none of which has been genetically modified.

As well as coming up with strains that are commercially viable to grow in Texas, the researchers are attempting to capture the locale’s terroir, or the characteristic taste of its water, soil, and climate.

 

Employees move cases of whiskey at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
Employees move cases of TX Whiskey at the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Some small batch producers and even major distillers have already tried making whiskey from heirloom corns, grown from seeds of varieties that appeared generations ago.

But Murray said that while the heirlooms can produce interesting taste compounds, yields on the older varieties can be about an eighth of a modern hybrid, calling into question their commercial potential.

 

EXPERIMENTAL FIELDS

With about 7,000 maize varieties available at Texas A&M, the researchers have a multitude of possibilities that extend far beyond the state. A type of corn developed for Texas may produce buttery roasted notes in bourbon, for example, but a strain developed for Colorado may bring a bold smoky taste.

 

Man checks plants in a corn research field in College Station, Texas
A Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University checks plants while walking through a corn research field in College Station, Texas, U.S., May 23, 2018. Picture taken on May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

So far, Arnold and Murray have produced about 50 small-batch test products. Soon they will plant thousands of seeds on a commercial farm as they ramp up production.

At the experimental field, Murray and graduate students conduct thousands of pollinations by hand and fly drones overhead to monitor crops destined for the distillery.

 

White Dog sits atop barrel at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
White Dog rye and wheated bourbon sit atop a barrel at the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 23, 2018. Picture taken May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Arnold sees the research as a game changer, much like the way the wine producers in the Napa region of California honed their local craft to take on Old World producers in France and elsewhere.

With 95 percent of the world’s supply of bourbon made in Kentucky, Arnold said it is producers in the Bluegrass State that he would like to “beat at their own game.”

 

 

Working at distillery Firestone & Robertson, which bills itself as the biggest whiskey distiller west of the Mississippi, Arnold has a lab to test for tastes and the patience that comes from being a distiller, where his commercial products sit in barrels for at least four years.

If the project proves successful, it might not be until the middle of the next decade that it will produce a commercial whiskey.

“‘Soon’ in the whiskey world is kind of relative. Everything for us is years and years down the road,” he said.

 

(Additional reporting by Alan Devall; editing by Frank McGurty and Rosalba O’Brien)

 

A drone is used to survey a corn research field in College Station, Texas
A drone is used to survey a corn research field in College Station, Texas, U.S., May 23, 2018. Picture taken May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Leather tops of whiskey bottles are photographed at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
The leather tops of TX Whiskey and TX Bourbon bottles are photographed at the Firestone & Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Carbon dioxide bubbles rise from mash being fermented into beer at Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
Carbon dioxide bubbles rise from mash being fermented into distillers beer at at the Firestone &Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Man monitors bottling line inside Firestone & Robertson in Forth Worth, Texas
A man monitors the bottling line inside the Firestone &Robertson (F&R) Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, U.S., May 24, 2018. Picture taken on May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

A woman covers the shoot of a of corn plant so pollination can be controlled in a corn research field in College Station, Texas
A Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University covers the shoot of a of corn plant so pollination can be controlled by hand in a corn research field in College Station, Texas, U.S., May 23, 2018. Picture taken on May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

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