Corn whiskey is a legally defined variety of whiskey that was once large and in charge among the American drinking public. Its popularity has waned over the years, but some think that it’s poised for a comeback. The gold standard of that variety is Mellow Corn, a Heaven Hill spirit that has stood the test of time.
Established in 1935, shortly after the end of prohibition, Old Heavenhill Springs Distillery was founded by a group of investors in Bardstown, Kentucky. They were gambling on the idea that alcohol production would be a booming business and invested heavily in being one of the first companies to stand up and service that market. One of those investors was well known distiller Joseph L. Beam (first cousin to Jim Beam) who would also become the first master distiller of the facility.
As the years went on, the Shapira family bought out all of the other investors to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill Distillery.” Despite being bought out, the descendants of Joseph Beam remain the master distillers of the facility to this day.
Their primary distilling facility burned down in 1996, destroying 90,000 barrels of whiskey and lighting the creek that feeds the distillery on fire for nearly two miles downstream. The business survived and they purchased a new distillery in Bernheim from Diageo in 1999 where production now takes place, but all aging still takes place at the original Bardstown facility.
The 1935 bet has paid off — big time. Heaven Hill Distillery is currently the biggest family owned distillery in the United States and the second largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. Their flagship brands include Deep Eddy vodka and Elijah Craig, and their facility hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Heaven Hill introduced their Mellow Corn brand in 1945 at the tail end of World War II, and neither the production process nor the label has changed very much in the intervening years.
While most bourbon starts with a grain bill of at least 51% corn, this whiskey cranks that ratio to at least 80% with the remainder an undisclosed combination of rye and malted barley. The grains are then mashed, fermented, and distilled.
For a bourbon, each run of spirit is required to use a new charred oak barrel for the aging process. Heaven Hill makes plenty of bourbon and goes through those barrels at a break-neck pace. Once the previously used bourbon barrels are emptied, Mellow Corn recycles those barrels and re-fills them with the corn-heavy spirit for another four years of waiting.
In terms of the shape of the bottle, it’s pretty standard for a liquor bottle. There’s a round and slender body that sports a rounded shoulder and a medium length straight neck. The whole thing is capped with a bright yellow plastic screw-on cap.
As for the label, it’s a delightfully retro blast from the past. The background is bright yellow with red lettering for the brand information, and an illustration of a bourbon barrel with some corn stalks in the middle of the label that looks like it’s right out of a mid-century Walt Disney movie.
If I have one complaint, it’s the usual one that I voice for older labels: specifically that it’s massive and takes up pretty much the entire bottle. There’s a little space around the edges where you can see the amber whiskey inside, but otherwise it’s blocked from view.
This reminds me a lot of the J.T.S. Brown bourbon that also comes out of Heaven Hill. There’s some sweet caramel and vanilla aromas coming off the glass, as well as a good hint of raw corn.
The flavor isn’t particularly mellow for something called “Mellow Corn.” Sure, there’s the vanilla and caramel aspects that you would expect in a corn based and barrel aged whiskey — but that 50% alcohol content means there’s also a significant alcohol burn that comes with the flavors. And unfortunately, I think that increased alcohol content brings with it a significant bitterness that pretty much takes over the experience.
That bitterness lasts well into the aftertaste, making it the only thing you’re likely to remember about the flavor.
Typically, the addition of some ice and some water to a spirit tends to make it chill out a bit, reducing the impact of unpleasant characteristics. In this instance, that’s definitely the case. The bitterness is significantly reduced and that alcohol bite is now more of a background consideration.
The unfortunate thing here is that, while the bitterness has been reduced, there’s also not much good going on here to highlight. The flavors are pretty standard and boring, and the added water doesn’t bring out any new tricks for the spirit to show off. Probably not a spirit that’s going to come to mind when I want to sip something neat.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
In general, the flavors of the spirit that we’re using here are pretty boring and unremarkable. It’s the bog standard, corn-based whiskey flavors which is just enough sweet caramel and vanilla to register. So while this isn’t the best cocktail I’ve ever had, this is a pretty good opportunity for some experimentation.
What you get here is one standard unit of old fashioned, and (especially with the addition of a good bit of sugar) the whole thing is about as exciting as middle gray to a photographer. But it’s a blank canvas, a good non-offensive starting point for experimentation and for those times when you want the ingredients to be the star of the show.
It looks like that bitterness has made its way back into the mix.
Normally with a mule, the added ginger beer has just a touch of bitterness that tends to work similarly to the angostura bitters in an Old Fashioned. (That is, it adds a bit of depth and texture that gets balanced out with the sweetness in the spirit.) In this case, though, there’s just not enough of that caramel sweetness but simultaneously too much alcohol burn, and the whole thing comes out bitter.
Speaking of things making a comeback, that corn flavor is back with a vengeance. It’s almost like I’m drinking this cocktail while munching on some corn on the cob. That corn flavor usually takes a back seat in corn-based whiskey, but in this case it’s coming through loud and clear despite all the flavor of the ginger beer.
There’s not really much to write home about here.
If we focus primarily on the flavors, it’s pretty boring and bland, nothing you can’t find in any other bourbon or corn based whiskey. The fact that it’s a straight corn whiskey doesn’t add any uniqueness or do it any favors. You could get this same flavor profile from any number of bottom shelf spirits.
But that bitterness that comes in and sticks with the majority of the ways in which we tried this whiskey is really what knocks it down a few pegs in my opinion. I know Heaven Hill is capable of making a better bourbon — we’ve reviewed a number of them on this site… this just isn’t one of them.
|Mellow Corn Kentucky Straight Corn Whiskey|
Produced By: Mellow CornOwned By: Heaven Hill Distillery
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $11.49 / 750 ml
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Overall Rating: 1/5
Spend the extra dollar and get something actually good from Heaven Hill.