Texas grain farmer John Sawyer found a new market for his corn and wheat at a local whiskey distillery.
The farm was already providing grain to the distillery indirectly through a local grain buyer who was supplying F&R from numerous Texas farms. Coincidentally, the distillery was wanting to move to a single source for wheat and corn, to make it easier to control variety, flavor and taste with more uniform ingredients.
Just back from a one-week distilling school in Louisville, Ky., and ready to get involved, Sawyer and F&R were able to strike a deal to make Sawyer Farms the distillery’s sole provider of corn and wheat.
“Bourbon is a product that’s actually closer to the farm than many others we could get involved with, and I thought it would be a more interesting use for our corn,” Sawyer says. “It’s a great way to be involved in an industry that I’ve had an interest in for a long time.”
Sawyer grows yellow dent corn and soft red winter wheat for the distillery — two major ingredients for making bourbon. As stipulated by federal standards, bourbon must be produced in the U.S., and the grain mixture must contain at least 51 percent corn. By investigating crop yield, flavor and alcohol yield, he worked with F&R for six months before they collectively decided on a single variety of corn and a single variety of wheat. Sawyer keeps the identity of these two varieties preserved at his grain elevator, ensuring that F&R only receives and uses them for making their bourbon.
Bourbon also must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels, and to be labeled as “straight” bourbon, it needs to age for at least two years. TX Straight Bourbon is aged for at least four years. Furthermore, bourbon can have no other added ingredients except water and yeast. F&R uses a proprietary strain of yeast that was captured from a pecan nut in Glen Rose, Texas.
Other standard ingredients in most bourbons are rye and malted barley. Since TX Straight Bourbon includes wheat instead of rye, it is classified as a “wheated bourbon.” However, Sawyer has experimented with growing rye and barley, which are not common crops to his part of Central Texas. F&R uses this rye and barley, allowing them to make styles of Texas whiskey that normally are devoid of any Texas grains.
From the beginning, F&R wanted local ingredients, knowing that many Texans will be drawn to the bourbon’s all-Texas mashbill — bourbon-speak for recipe. But the company is quick to point out that incorporating grains from a Hill County farmer offers more to the process than just Texas pride.
“We’ve been blessed to have these low rates. It takes a lot of money to put in a crop and, in some years, not get a reward. It takes a commitment by a lender and by a producer to stick with it and see through the cycles.”
“Since working with John, we’ve been able to concentrate on varieties and focus on how they affect the consistency and flavor of our product,” says Rob Arnold, F&R’s head distiller. “He is willing to experiment, and for us it’s not just to have a good story but also to be able to work closely with him to concentrate on a quality product. Before the grains ever arrive at our distillery — and even before the seeds are planted — F&R works with John on the farm by focusing on varieties and agricultural practices that will deliver the highest quality grain for making whiskey.”