Oxford, UK, 25th August, 2021 – The Oxford Artisan Distillery launches a series of experimental whiskies titled Grain Stories, with the inaugural release of Heritage Corn Whisky.

Each expression in the new collection will focus on Master Distiller Chico Rosa’s research into different heritage grains combined with a variety of distilling and maturation processes. The name is also indicative of the creativity and experimentation planned for the bottlings, giving the distilling team plenty of room for play.

Chico comments: “Every whisky we produce has its own narrative and with our exclusive use of heritage grain, the different varieties we use play a vital part –   it is these distinctive grains which are the thread that binds every chapter in this tome of Grain Stories whiskies.”

The distillery’s regenerative and organic farming partners, led by their Head of Grain & Sustainable Development, John Letts, grow the heritage grains, the likes of which have not been grown in England for centuries. The Oxford Artisan Distillery is the only distillery in England to use these populations, painstakingly sourced and bulked up over many years, and now grown sustainably using ‘restorative’, carbon-negative methods.

Heritage Corn Whisky has a particularly unique, and serendipitous, origin. John Letts grew up in Canada surrounded by fields of modern hybrid corn used to make products like corn flakes and high fructose syrup. A few farmers grew multicoloured corn (technically North Eastern ‘flint’ corn) that was once grown by native people all over North America. Some also grew a slightly sweeter corn – the ancestor of modern ‘sweet corn’ – which has a mutation that prevents the sugar initially stored in the seed from turning into starch (flour) as it ripens.

In 2010 John collected samples of both ‘flint’ and ‘sweet’ corn from gene banks all over the world and added this to seed he’d obtained from Canada. He planted all of it in a large research plot in his garden and allowed it to cross-pollinate for 5 years, which produced a genetically-diverse population with a large range of cobs with multicoloured seeds. After every harvest he selected out the earliest ripening plants with the healthiest and most productive ears.

In 2017 John harvested about a ton of corn – by hand! Half of this was dry, but the other half was still damp and began to germinate (malt) on the barn floor as it was being cleaned. What at first appeared to be a disaster was actually an opportunity. John comments: “I flaked and crushed all of this maize and sent it to the distillery in a panic… and the team immediately put it in the distilling vat.”

The grain ratio the team used contained 51% corn (a mixture of ‘sweet’ and ‘flint’ corn seeds), half of which had germinated (malted) along with 34% rye, 10% wheat and 5% malted barley. Lactic maceration was undertaken prior to mash, and the corn was fermented dry as a paste after milling and before mixing with water and the other grains for three days boosting creamy characters and textures.

Having been fully matured in New American oak for three and a half years, the highly active wood has gifted the creamy spirit sweet vanilla, allspice and cinnamon notes.

Chico comments: “The second most abundant grain used is rye which is quite noticeable through its spicy character, but the corn is oily and its charm comes through with butter and biscuity notes that elevate the spirit. The whisky is full of the distillery’s characteristic floral and herbal tones coupled with shortbread and unroasted nuts, while banana and ginger cake flavours interplay with the whisky’s smooth velvety mouthfeel, finishing with spicy and green grass vibes.”

Heritage Corn Whisky is a first from a British distillery. It has been bottled at 50.4 % ABV, and the batch consists of 830 bottles, priced at £95 for 50cl and it is now available exclusively from the distillery’s website.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery:

The distillery opened for business at its purpose-built site in Oxford on 27th July 2017.

It is Oxford’s first ever distillery and produces a range of spirits, including gin, absinthe, vodka and whisky, all with total provenance from grain to glass. The Oxford Artisan Distillery is rare amongst UK distilleries in producing its own organic spirit, rather than purchasing Grain Neutral Spirit (GNS) from other sources.

The distillery has a licence to produce spirits for the University of Oxford and has a notable partnership with the University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden.  

About Organic Heritage Grain:

Certified Organic in April 2020, The Oxford Artisan Distillery is the only distillery to use genetically diverse ‘populations’ of ancient heritage grains, restored and bulked up by archaeobotanist and organic farmer John Letts. John has spent 35 years researching and creating these mixed ‘Medieval style’ crops, which can contain hundreds of varieties. He has also developed a method of growing them sustainably, without chemicals, with an understorey of white clover that feeds the soil and supports biodiversity. These heritage populations are very hardy and can adapt to climate change – but also produce exceptionally delicious grain for making spirits. The Oxford Artisan Distillery has an exclusive license to use John’s grains for distilling, and they are now being grown on over 500 acres on select farms including the Bruern Estate and Fir Farm in West Oxfordshire, Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Berks, and the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.

Corn is very productive, and can be bulked up 10-20 times faster than wheat or rye (because one cob produces 500+ seeds rather than the 40 or so found in an ear of wheat or rye) – but corn is also more demanding of nitrogen so needs richer soil. When John Letts arrived in the UK over 35 years ago corn was grown primarily for silage to feed animals as it was difficult to ripen a crop for seed. Now, due to climate change and the release of short seasoned maize varieties better adapted to UK conditions, it is becoming more common to grow corn for seed – but modern ‘monoculture’ varieties are much less hardy than genetically diverse ‘populations’.

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