The Ultimate Guide To Corn Whiskey

Corn whiskey has a bad rap. Well, can you blame folks? There is so much mediocre whiskey out there. Admit it: when you think of corn whiskey, you think of mountains with illegal stills tucked away out behind the barn. You don’t think of it in the same way you think of bourbon or scotch. Corn whiskey is the unsophisticated little brother that never grew up. A Peter Pan of spirits (without the pixie dust).

But is it?

Corn is the main ingredient in bourbon.  So shouldn’t corn whiskey have the same ability to tantalize the sophisticated palate?

Wait, so how is bourbon different?

The difference between bourbon and corn whiskey is slight. In fact, there’s only a small difference in mash bills and the aging process separating them.

According to “The Standard of Identity” part of the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 1, Sub-Chapter C, the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits…. Never mind, we’ll just put it on a table.

Table: The Difference between Bourbon & Corn Whiskey



Corn Whiskey

Percent Corn in Mash Bill

Not less than 51%

Not less than 80%

Proof from fermented mash

Not to exceed 160 proof

Not to exceed 160 proof

Proof when stored in barrels

Not to exceed 125 proof

Not to exceed 125 proof



Yes & No

Barreled in Charred New Oak



Barreled in Uncharred New Oak



Barreled in Used Oak



Defining Terms (just in case).

  • Mash Bill - some call this the “recipe.” It’s the percentage of the different grains that make up the mash--usually corn, with malted barley, rye, or wheat.
  • Fermented Mash - the mash once yeast is added and starts changing the available sugars to alcohol. This is the point in the process where the alcohol content is greatest.
  • Proof - Is an archaic measure meant of the amount of alcohol in a beverage. Once upon a time, in England, the proof was 1.821 times the percentage of ABV. Thank goodness everyone agreed to make the math easier! The term remains, but proof is now measured as 2x ABV.
  • ABV - Alcohol By Volume is exactly what it says, a measure of how much of a given volume of liquid is alcohol. 60% ABV = 120 Proof.
  • Aged vs. Unaged - Aging is placing a spirit in a barrel and letting it sit for a while. Un-aged spirits include vodka, gin, blanco tequila, and some corn whiskey.
  • Barrels - Charred New Oak - These are virgin barrels made of oak, for bourbon. Usually American White Oak is used, then charred to a variety of different levels ranging from 15 - 55 seconds.
  • Barrels - Uncharred New Oak - These are virgin barrels, usually made of American White Oak, that have not been charred.
  • Barrels - Used Oak - Barrels that may have contained anything else from bourbon to rum, absinthe or brandy.

So, the difference between bourbon and corn whiskey is…?

The difference between bourbon and corn whiskey is the percent of corn in the mash, and how (or whether) it is aged. Bourbons can be made with 80 percent or more corn in their mash, and there are even 100 percent corn bourbons on the market. The only difference is that those spirits are aged in charred new oak barrels--the one thing corn whiskey cannot be.

But corn whiskey is moonshine, right?


Nope. By definition (and sorry, there will be a few more of these), moonshine is illegal.

The federal definition of moonshine goes back to the 1920s and ‘30s. Two different court cases refined the legal definition. In State v. King, the definition is broad: “Moonshine is an intoxicating liquor explicitly distilled for beverage purposes.” You gotta love the phrasing. Later, in the case of State v. Galin, the court held that moonshine meant corn whiskey, and declared that it couldn’t be used as a “catch all” for just any illegal intoxicating liquor.

By convention, moonshine is distilled in a pot still, made mostly of corn, and often includes sugar and other flavorings. The sugar is there to increase the alcohol content or ABV. The more sugar added to the mash, the higher the proof the distiller can get.

As defined by the “Standard of Identity,” corn whiskey isn’t allowed added sugar or flavors.

This hasn’t stopped distillers from selling spirits called Moonshine, White Dog, White Lighting, White Whiskey, or even Hooch. But are they corn whiskey? You’ll have to check the bottle. Some are corn whiskey, and some are grain alcohol.

Okay, so if it’s not moonshine, then what is corn whiskey?

Corn whiskey is a whiskey made from a mash bill of 80 percent or more corn. It can be unaged, or aged in new uncharred oak, or in used oak. If it’s aged for two years or more, it can also be called straight corn whiskey.

For Modern Corn Whiskey Distillers - It's All About The Corn!

Back in the mid-1800s, a hybrid strain of corn called Yellow Dent #2 took over the country and became the most common corn crop. It is used in everything from ethanol for your car to cornmeal, corn starch, and high-fructose corn syrup. 

Yellow Dent #2 CornYellow Dent #2

Yellow Dent #2 quickly became a major player in whiskey production in the U.S. It was cheap, it was starchy, and its flavor could be masked with other grains. As interest in corn whiskey has increased, though, distillers have moved away from mass-market corn. They’ve started working with heritage corn strains with great names like Bloody Butcher, Pencil Cob, Boone County White, Wapsie Valley, Jimmy Red corn, and others. Heritage corn comes in colors ranging from black, to blue, white, and red.

Mix Peruvian Native Variety Heirloom Corn

Distillers have started looking for rare and heirloom varieties of corn. That’s partly due to the grain-to-bottle movement. It’s also partly because of the growing awareness of the problems around the lack of diversity in our grain crops. (Remember the decline of the bees?) Distillers are also in search of corn varieties that can add to the flavor of the spirit, rather than simply being starch to be turned into alcohols.

The great thing about these heirloom varieties is they have as much to add to taste as they do in history.

Take “Bloody Butcher” corn, a variety of corn found in Appalachia. Appalachia is the most diverse agricultural area in the country, with 1,500 heirloom crops, including 633 types of apples and 485 varieties of beans. A variant of Bloody Butcher corn was among one of the crops saved over five generations by one family in the region. The corn gets its name from the red specks in the milled corn, which look like specks of blood on a butcher’s apron. It has a nutty flavor and is a favorite for makers of artisanal cornbread and corn whiskey.

“Boon County White” corn is another favorite of corn whiskey distillers. It’s a dent corn developed from another variety known as “White Mastodon” by a Mr. James W. Riley, of Boon Country, Indiana in the 1870s. It is called a “triple threat” because it is great for eating fresh, roasting, and grinding.

“Ute Blue” corn is a Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch product in the Four Corners area. Their blue corn is a variety grown in the area for generations. Distillers using the Ute Blue corn appreciate its butterscotch taste, as well as the lack of acidity found in yellow and white corn. 

Once a bootlegger’s favorite, “Jimmy Red” corn was described as a “blood-red, flint-hard dent corn with a rich and oily germ.” As the story goes, the corn almost died with the last of the bootleggers. But two ears were salvaged from his cornfield and given to a local farmer, Ted Chewning, who liked to save seeds and revive heirloom plants. Jimmy Red corn is now a favorite for grits and whiskey. It has a nutty honey flavor, with hints of marzipan and cherry.

Jimmy Red

What goes in the other 20 percent of the Mash bill?

Like bourbon, most corn whiskeys use other grains to complete the mash bill. Historically, malted barley is used not just to add to the flavor profile but to promote fermentation. Malted barley is barley that has begun to germinate. As it sprouts, it produces an enzyme that voraciously consumes starches and turns them into sugars. These sugars are then available for the yeast to convert into alcohols.

Big Bottle of Moonshine or Vodka with a Cob of Corn

Big Bottle of Moonshine or Vodka with a Cob of Corn


Other grains are added to the mash to bring out different textures and flavors, adding depth to the spirit.

  • Barley also adds toasted notes to the finished whiskey, and flavors described as nutty, smoky, and chocolatey.
  • Wheat is often added as a mellowing element, although it can bring in hints of honey, dried berries, toffee, and mint. Its “bread-ness” is mainly a supporting player that complements the other grains in the mash.
  • Rye is often the main player with its spicy, mint, and peppery flavors that hint at cinnamon, anise, and rye bread. Rye can also help pull out clove and nutmeg flavors from charred barrels.

All Corn = Fermentation issues

A few distilleries make 100 percent corn whiskey. Without malted barley, though, the fermentation needs a kick start. Some distillers (and a lot of home distillation recipes) opt for malting the corn. Others turn to biochemistry and add the enzymes alpha and beta-amylase, which naturally occur in malted barley, to their corn mash.

Yeast! It's not just an alcohol-producing engine.

Yeast can impact the flavor of the whiskey. If you’ve ever played around with brewing beer, you know there are all sorts of different yeasts with different flavor profiles. Champagne yeast works for dry and sparkling wines, but if you’re brewing a lager, you want lager yeast. Whiskey distillers usually opt for sour mash. Think of this like your sourdough starter. It is taken from the last batch of whiskey mash and allowed to ferment, then added to the next round. And just like a sourdough starter, sour mash is self-sustaining. Its lower pH makes it more difficult for unwanted microbes to get a foothold.

Distillers also use sweet mash, which requires more equipment and monitoring to control pH. Using sweet mash is more like baking with commercial yeast. The yeast is added and then monitored to control for pH and for contaminants. The trade-off is that distillers have more control and are able to produce a more consistent product, even though they have to invest more in equipment and monitoring.

The Pot Still Tradition

Traditionally, moonshine was produced in copper pot stills, and most whiskey distillers continue the tradition. Pot stills keep more of the character and flavor of the mash bill, unlike a column still, which produces a cleaner distillate and operates continually rather than by batch. Many vodkas are triple distilled in a column still, producing a clean, pure, almost tasteless distillate. That’s not what modern corn whiskey distillers are looking for, as they work to bring the unique flavor of the different heirloom corns into the bottle.

The modern pot still is descended from the alembic, a device made of two vessels connected by a tube and used by alchemists and perfume makers. You can read more about that here. Pot stills came to the United States with Scotch and Irish immigrants, many of whom settled in the middle colonies. Later, those farmers and their descendants moved farther west, settling in Tennessee and Kentucky.

To Age or Not to Age?

Many of the spirits we drink are unaged, such as vodka, gin, and some kinds of tequila. Generally, we don’t give it a second thought, except when we see the rare “Vodka aged in Cognac Barrels” or “Gin aged in Bourbon Barrels.” These are new trends that have mirrored the “finishing” trend in scotches and bourbons with their “Cask Finished” spirits. Case finished spirits spend the last part of their aging process in barrels from rum, brandy, sherry, ale, scotch, etc.

Aging can add, subtract or create interactions between the spirit and the container. What the container is made of (type of wood) and how it is prepped (charred, uncharred, used) will affect the final product. Although some effects can be subtle, one is not. The spirit going into the barrel is clear; the spirit coming out is golden or amber-colored.

The angels get a share of aged whiskey.

As whiskey ages in barrels, year over year, a small amount is lost. Those lost spirits are called “The Angel’s Share.” The term comes from the Scottish brewing tradition, which holds that any drop wasted is a tragedy. No matter how hard they worked to seal their barrels, a percentage of the whiskey disappeared. The longer the whiskey aged, the more tax was taken by the angels. Distillers now know that the first year’s tax averages 10 percent, and then 2 percent is taxed each year after.

So, I got some corn whiskey. What do I do now?

Corn Whiskey Cocktails

Anywhere you can use bourbon, you can substitute corn whiskey. Just keep in mind the character of the corn whiskey you choose. Aged corn whiskeys tend to have more complex flavors. Unaged corn whiskey can also have a bit of a bite, so we recommend using it in recipes, some of which our ancestors would recognize.

Make Mine Moonshine!

Moonshine was often sold with added flavors, from sugar to up the alcohol content to whatever fruit was available--lemon, raspberry, watermelon, apple, or peach--to flavor it. Feeling like a moonshine-inspired corn whiskey cocktail? Try one of the recipes below.

Strawberry Moonshine

2  oz. unaged corn whiskey

.5 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 tsp. sugar (or to taste)

2 strawberries, washed, hulled, and chopped. 

Place sugar in a highball or mason jar, add lemon juice to help dissolve it, then add strawberries and ice, pour whiskey over, and gently mix. 

White Dog Julep

2.5 oz. straight corn whiskey

4 sprigs of mint (leaves only)

2 sugar cubes

More mint for garnish

Start with a Collins or double old-fashioned glass, add mint sprigs and sugar cubes, and gently muddle--enough to releaser the mint oils, but not so much that you tear the leaves. Add whiskey and fill a glass with crushed ice, stirring until the glass beads with condensation. Garnish with mint.

Moonshine Sweet Tea

1.5 oz. unaged corn whiskey

1 cup black tea

Sugar to taste


Make the tea (1 teabag per 1 cup of hot water) and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Place ice cubes in your favorite highball or mason jar, pour over tea and whiskey, and gently mix in sugar to taste. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Golden Derby

1.5 oz. straight corn whiskey

1.5 oz. ginger liqueur (we like Barrow’s Intense Ginger)

2 oz. grapefruit juice (unsweetened)

Fill an old-fashioned glass with ice water to chill while you mix whiskey, ginger liqueur, and grapefruit juice in a shaker. Shake well and toss water and ice. Refill with fresh ice, pour the mix over ice, and garnish with a grapefruit wedge.

And for something completely different!

Or, try Edwin Zee’s Bottom Shelf New York Sour made with the trailblazer Mellow Corn, a Bottled-in-Bond, Kentucky Straight Corn Whiskey. To carry “Bottled-in-Bond” on the label, the spirit must be from a single distilling year, aged in a federal storehouse for a minimum of four years, and bottled at 100 proof.

It is worth it to try Mellow Corn and its fellow corn whiskeys straight. Although, for those who tend toward the peated Scotch whiskies, they may be too sweet.

Mellow Corn Whiskey

Or, if you prefer your whiskey straight, here are a few bottles that shine.

As mentioned above, Heaven Hill’s Straight Mellow Corn Bottled-in-Bond Whiskey can be a nice sipping whiskey on a hot day. But since its first release in 1945, corn whiskey has come a long way.

Sierra Norte Distillery in Mexico is a whiskey-tasting master class. Each one of its corn whiskeys is produced with exactly the same mash bill: 85 percent corn and 15 percent malted barley. The corn for each whiskey is black, white, yellow, purple, or red--all heirlooms native to Oaxaca. Sierra Norte proves what you put in matters, as each of their five whiskeys has a different flavor profile. Here’s a sampling:

Sierra Norte

Yellow Corn Whiskey with a nose comprised of “blue iris, dried chilies, and fresh linen”

Purple Corn Whiskey with “pepper and allspice… brisket notes, star anise, a dry nuttiness,”

Red Corn Whiskey with a “big mouthful with flavors of fruit concentrate, red bell pepper, baked orange.”

                    ~ Jonny McCormick. Whisky Advocate

Tenth Ward Distilling makes a smoked corn whiskey with 80 percent smoked corn and 20 percent malted barley. Their grain is sourced locally from the Ripon Lodge Farm in West Virginia. With its butter and sweet corn notes mixed with campfires, it reminds one of mezcal or scotch. This is a whiskey worth sipping

Snitching Lady Distillery in Colorado makes Button’s Blue Corn Whiskey from 100 percent native blue corn. It has toffee, pecan, and vanilla notes, with flavors of butterscotch and caramel. You’ll want to savor this one.

So, what’s next?

For corn whiskey, watch your local craft distilleries.

Across the country, micro-distilleries are trying variations on themes. They’re uncovering more strains of heirloom corn and testing sweet vs. sour mashes. In the decade to come, look to see a lot of different aging and finishing techniques as distilleries look for inspiration here, by using local cooperages, to bringing in used European oak.

And continue to see a movement away from homogeneous corn toward more grain-to-bottle local distilling. This is good for everyone--the planet and our tastebuds. The Sierra Norte Distillery showed that different heirloom varietals produce different tasting whiskeys. Modern distillers are bringing a once-overlooked component of American whiskey to the forefront. Keep an eye out for corn whiskey or straight corn whiskey at your local liquor store or farmer’s market. You never know what you might find.

Curious about something else in the long American tradition of corn spirits? Post your question below. We might just tackle it in a future article!