Spirits

Bourbon Producers Consider the Pros and Cons of Non-GMO Corn

Why some whiskey brands are choosing to use non-genetically modified corn

field of corn
Photo credit: Willard / iStock.

The liquor industry knows this about your booze-buying habits: You actually don’t look at bourbon labels to see if your whiskey is non-genetically-modified, even though you might be checking other products you buy, like vegetables and breakfast cereal.

The industry knows this because producers are not actually allowed to announce that they’re using non-GMO grains on the bottles; the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has ruled that it’s misleading to use any “bioengineered food labeling terms or any similar references on alcohol beverage labels.”

This does not preclude a producer from mentioning elsewhere that it uses non-GMO grains. Some are more vocal about this in their ads and on their websites—Wild Turkey, in particular, had one campaign that touted its commitment to non-GMO corn on the web and in press releases. But other producers: not so much. Buffalo Trace, for instance, eschews modified corn in its whiskey making, but only mentions “Whiskeys distilled using 100% non-GMO corn” in small print on its website. Being loud about it is “not our style,” says Amy Preske, public relations and events manager for the distillery.

The liquor industry also knows this about your habits: There’s a good chance you drink bourbon made with genetically modified corn. (Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are defined by the World Health Organization as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.”) That’s because GMO corn is today far more abundant than not—it’s estimated that 85 to 90 percent (or more) of all corn grown in the U.S. has been genetically engineered in one way or another. Liquor is not a major buyer of corn in the broader scheme—most corn grown ends up as feed, or as ethanol blended with gasoline. But with disparities in availability and price between modified and not, economics suggests that more whiskey will be made from GMO grain in the coming years. Simply put, corn that’s been tinkered with in the lab is more readily available and it costs less, since farmers can typically get more yield per acre, and spend less in tilling and pesticides.

Brown-Forman, which produces about 22 million cases of Jack Daniel’s annually, along with about a half-million cases of Woodford Reserve, previously used only non-GMO corn, but abandoned that policy in 2010. “We could no longer source enough high-quality non-GM corn within reasonable distances of our distilleries,” said Phil Lynch, Brown-Forman’s vice president and director of corporate communications. “So to avoid adding to our carbon footprint by shipping non-GM corn from great distances, we are now using GM corn from relatively close proximities to our distilleries.” 

Those distillers who choose to stick with non-GMO corn do so for varied reasons. A number of craft distillers find that it fits into the low-impact, environmentally friendly ethos to which they subscribe, and they aim to appeal to consumers who pay attention to such things. (Note that rye and barley have not been genetically modified; some wheat strains have been but are not yet approved by the FDA; all sugar from sugar cane is considered non-GMO as none of the sugar DNA survives processing. Sugar beets are commonly grown from genetically modified stock—about 95 percent of the national crop—and can be used in making neutral grain spirits.)

Among whiskey producers opting to source non-GMO corn are Tennessee’s Chattanooga Whiskey; Rolling River Spirits in Oregon (“where possible”); and Alpine Distilling in Park City, Utah. Brands that claim at least some products made with organic corn—by law products approved as “organic” cannot be genetically modified—include Journeyman Distillery in Michigan, Koval Distillery in Chicago, and Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh.  

Inquiries sent to a number of smaller whiskey distillers in Kentucky show no definite preference for one type of corn over the other. Willett reports that it uses all non-GMO corn, not so much because of concern about what might survive through the distillation process and into the bottle, but “we choose to use non-GMO as the spent mash is fed to animals.”

Angel’s Envy concedes “we cannot claim that we are 100% GMO-free although we do try.” Wilderness Trail uses some heirloom corn for special releases, but sources all of its more widely distilled corn from a single farmer, who grows both GMO and non-GMO varieties from the same genetic stock; it will use either. Suggesting some of the disadvantages of eschewing GMO corn, they note, “Our heirloom grains are grown on distillery grounds and often yield a little over half the yield of GMO corn.”

Many craft distillers begin with sourcing whiskey from larger producers, and then blending or further aging it before bottling it. In these cases, producers appear willing to supply the market with what it wants. Terressentia Corporation, which has distilleries in Kentucky and South Carolina producing bulk spirits for merchant bottlers, does offer whiskey made from non-GMO corn for customers that specifically request it, but they note that “it is a more expensive product.” It’s similar with Midwest Grain Products, a large-scale supplier of aged and unaged whiskey, which has been offering a non-GMO bourbon made at its Indiana distillery since 2014, and earlier this year also started offering a non-GMO neutral grain spirit.

Michter’s Distillery, which describes itself as on the small end of the group of larger bourbon producers, uses all non-GMO corn, but isn’t especially activist about it. “Whether we’re doing non-GMO or not, our goal is to try to make the best American whiskey,” says Joseph J. Magliocco, Michter’s president. He notes that the current master distiller, Pam Heilmann, is rather fussy about what grain she uses, and the highest-grade corn she can source happens to be non-GMO.  

Of the major whiskey producers, just three claim to use strictly non-GMO corn: Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, and Wild Turkey.

Four Roses, which produces bourbon from two mash bills—one with 60 percent corn and one with 75 percent—states on its website “We pay a premium for our high quality, non-GMO grains, but that’s the only way we know how to make high quality bourbon.” Wild Turkey notes that it also pays a premium, but won’t reveal how much. One can infer from other reports. For example, one farmer says that he can command 50 cents per bushel more for non-GMO over GMO; another farmer reports that he can collect $1 per bushel more. (The recent corn price is about $3.50 a bushel, so that accounts for a significant markup.)

Buffalo Trace not only uses non-GMO corn in its regular mashbill, but in 2015 launched a heritage corn program growing its own non-GMO corn—an antique strain called Boone County White dating from around 1876—on farmland it acquired adjacent to its Kentucky distillery. Plans call for using the land for a variety of heritage corns over time, and distilling these for a limited “Single Estate” bourbon line. Buffalo Trace plans to release the whiskey only when sufficiently aged, so don’t expect to see any on store shelves until at least 2021.

Wild Turkey has been the most outspoken in touting its non-GMO corn. Its claims are not based on environmental concerns but simply on doing things the way they’ve always done, the old-fashioned way. “For us, Jimmy [Russell] made that decision years ago,” says Eddie Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey. “I’m not sure he even understood what GMO stood for. He just didn’t want to change the farmers who were growing his corn.”

Opting to quietly tout the use of non-GMO corn because it’s simply a better grain, and because a growing portion of the market is interested in it, makes sense. But doing so quietly is a sensible defense tactic: If non-GMO corn becomes harder to source or far more expensive, distillers can shift with minimal backlash.

And continued availability is certainly on the minds of these distillers. “It’s always a challenge, both from a standpoint of our growth and the number of farmers who are committed to growing non-GMO,” says Buffalo Trace’s Preske. But, she notes, “we have contracts lined up for several years in the future with most of our suppliers to ensure non-GMO corn.”

At Wild Turkey, Russell says access and costs aren’t currently an issue, but they’re monitoring that. “Right now, we don’t have any problems,” he says. “But if everybody went to [non-GMO], it probably would be a little bit of a problem.”

Magliocco, Michter’s president, says he’s optimistic about supply. “We’re hoping and thinking that shouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “We have one local farmer who converted his crops over to non-GMO, and I think there’s a trend, at least among some of the local farmers, to switching over to non-GMO.”

The non-GMO bourbon issue looks to remain unsettled for the foreseeable future. The most recent TTB statement notes that the ban against putting claims on a label is likely to come up for review. “Given the inquiries we have received and interest at the state level, we are reviewing our policy on the use of bioengineered food labeling statements or references on labels under our jurisdiction,” the agency notes. (When that review gets done is anyone’s guess; changes in labeling regulations have been delayed due to the change in administration earlier this year and the subsequent revisiting of priorities.)

With so much in flux right now in terms of federal regulations and the often-fickle organic market, it’s becoming clear who’s now in charge: the consumer. With a few exceptions, activists in the industry aren’t driving for a wholesale switch to non-GMO bourbon. But most producers are paying attention to what the consumer seems to want, and are ready to respond.

Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and has written frequently about spirits for The Atlantic, Imbibe Magazine, Punch, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among others.

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