In late 2022, estate distillery Frey Ranch announced two distillery-only releases: Quad Malt Bourbon Whiskey and 100% Malted Corn Bourbon Whiskey. These releases are notable for their inclusion of 100% malted grain mashbills. While American single malt and Scotch are distilled with 100% malted barley, Frey Ranch’s new releases also include malted rye, malted wheat, and malted corn. Malting rye has been gaining more popularity with distillers over the past 2 years, but malted wheat still trails behind it, and malted corn is pretty much unheard of in the American whiskey market.
We asked Frey Ranch co-founder and whiskey farmer Colby Frey to help explain the malting corn process, what it takes to produce a 100% malted corn bourbon, and if it will catch on with other producers.
Breaking Bourbon: Why malt corn? What are the benefits? How does it differ from non-malted corn in taste and process?
Frey: Because we have complete control over our grain production and harvesting, we have room to experiment with different malted whiskeys, such as the Frey Ranch 100% Malted Corn Bourbon, and our Frey Ranch Quad Malt Bourbon – which is malted corn, wheat, rye, and barley. With that said, you can malt any grain – as we’ve done with these two whiskey releases.
With these experimental releases, our goal is to showcase the grains that we grow here on the ranch. Malting is a way we can play with the flavors and create something even more unique. A lot of distilleries are very successful with barrel finished whiskies to create unique flavors in their whiskeys. For us, that would mask the flavor of the grain, so malting is our way to keep our grains front and center and give people a range of flavor profiles that round out their experience with our portfolio of American whiskeys.
To put a finer point on the malting process and how it impacts flavor, malted corn is much sweeter, and offers a range of different flavors than un-malted corn. For me, it’s really interesting how similar the malted corn palate is to the aroma I smell when we are irrigating 5' to 6' tall corn late at night. It also really reminds me of corn on the cob.
Breaking Bourbon: Why doesn’t everyone malt corn (or rye and wheat for that matter) when making whiskey?
Frey: Malting is a process that most distilleries don't do because it’s quite labor intensive and unnecessary for the production process. Traditionally, a small amount of malted barley is needed because of the enzymes that are created in the malting process. However, most distilleries buy malt from commercial maltsters. For Frey Ranch, it would certainly be cheaper for us to buy commercial malt, but that would contradict our brand ethos to own 100% of the production process – growing everything and ensuring the highest quality at every touchpoint. Which, at the end of the day, is why we malt our own grains.
Historically, malted barley has been the most widely used malt for a couple reasons. First, barley is the easiest grain to malt. It contains hulls (think a protective shell, but not a shell) that help protect the internals during steeping and germination when the seed is soft and delicate. It is also very vigorous and sprouts relatively easily. Beer is a major user of malted barley. The hulls help with lautering, creating a filter for the beer. This makes it readily available for distilleries.
Barley also has a decent amount of protein. This protein turns into enzymes during the malting process, which helps convert the starch into fermentable sugars. This is why you almost always see a 5% to 15% malt in most bourbons.
Breaking Bourbon: We presume other brands releasing 100% corn whiskeys are adding enzymes to convert the corn. Malting alleviates this. Is there a taste difference by doing this or is it more of a “behind the scenes” difference when distilling?
Frey: I can't speak to other distilleries, but I imagine they would use commercial enzymes if they do not have any malt in it. Malted grain has a totally different flavor than the un-malted grain, so the major difference would be the flavor of the final product, through the malt, not the use of commercial enzymes.
Breaking Bourbon: Why has malting grains (rye and wheat) been getting more popular?
Frey: As the whiskey market continues to explode, I think people are pushing the envelope and experimenting with other types of grain to differentiate themselves in a crowded category. Craft distilleries, in particular, are willing to push the envelope vs. the traditional large distilleries who are more married to their traditional processes. Overall, I think it’s a benefit to both the category and the consumers that we are providing interesting options for various palates. The flavor profiles you can create with malted grains really opens up a world of options – and gets consumers excited. We offer our 100% Malted Corn and Quad Malt as exclusives at the Distillery Tasting Room and give our fans something different than our Straight Bourbon or Single Barrel Bourbons.
Breaking Bourbon: Malting corn trails way behind malted rye or wheat. Why is that?
Frey: To be honest, I am not entirely sure why corn trails behind rye or wheat. The largest grain crop in the U.S. is corn, so reasonable logic would lead me to believe it should be done more frequently. One differentiation in malting corn is that it needs to be at a much higher temperature than other grains. For corn, we frequently need to add heat during germination if the outside air temperature is not high enough. Sometimes we have to cool the air for wheat, rye, and barley. Interestingly, this is very similar to how the grains grow in the fields – which could be a factor of their chemical composition. We have to wait until there is no chance of frost, and higher soil temps to plant corn, usually around May 10. In the fall, we plant wheat, rye and barley and those grains grow in a slower fashion during the cold weather.
Breaking Bourbon: Do you have any plans to malt more of your grains for your standard releases?
Frey: Absolutely – our new Frey Ranch Quad Malt Bourbon utilizes the same mash bill as our flagship four grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey: 100% non-GMO corn, winter rye, winter wheat, and two-row barley all slow-grown on-site. The difference is that each of the four grains, instead of only the barley, are malted on-site utilizing my custom-made malt drum.
It’s really interesting in the development process because we can taste Straight Bourbon and Quad Malt Bourbon side by side and sense the flavor difference that the malted grains contribute to the final product. Looking ahead, we have a few other whiskeys to add to our "malted series.”
For more info on malted corn bourbon please check out our review of Frey Ranch 100% Malted Corn Bourbon.
Photo of Colby Frey is copyrighted Frey Ranch Distillery.