When Athey and Maggie Lutz decided to build a distillery, they sought uber-local ingredients and production support for their corn whiskey. Water comes from a limestone-filtered mountain spring just 50 yards from the soaring hardwood distillery building and they grow heirloom corn on their 190-acre farm in Job(population 25), West Virginia.
The spring water was a no-brainer , but finding the corn took a little perseverance. They put out the word that they were searching for West Virginia farmers who were growing heirloom varieties. Through the grapevine they met Mr. Meadows, a 97-year-old farmer whose family had been growing Bloody Butcher corn in West Virginia from the same seed stock for 200 years. The corn is so-named for its red splotches on pale yellow kernels, like a blood on a butcher’s apron. However, corn kernels also mature as red or yellow.
This seed was legendary in the Meadows family. In the 1920s members used it to make corn whiskey and smuggled it in coal cart deliveries. Today, the Lutzs are making a quality-controlled, legal product.
Bloody Butcher corn is known for its substantial cornmeal which is traditionally used for cornbread and grits. It imparts a nutty flavor to everything including the whiskey. For the past two years Athey has been growing three acres of Bloody Butcher in preparation for opening Still Hollow Spirits in December 2017.
After the early-maturing corn is dry, Athey and assistant Tyler Waldo use an electric sheller to separate kernels from the cob. They take these five miles around the corner to The Old Mill, a century-old, water-driven grist mill. There two, three-foot diameter sandstones take less than an hour to turn 350 pounds of kernels into a coarse grind.
Back at the distillery the corn is added to 250 gallons of water and boiled. Once cool, yeast is added and the mash bubbles as yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol. After two weeks, that liquid is drained and placed into a direct-fired copper pot for concentration and distillation. The corn solids are saved to feed Lutzs’ herd of 16 Belted Galloway cattle.
The entire process takes about 2 ½ weeks and results in about six dozen 750ml bottles.
Making subtly sweet, complex (and legal) corn whiskey isn’t quite enough for Athey. He’s currently experimenting with enhancements to satisfy his creative spirit and open up market opportunities. Perhaps the most obvious is putting whiskey in charred, new white-oak barrels to age it into bourbon. In late July he bottled whiskey that he aged in barrels that had two previous lives – first to age bourbon, then to age maple syrup. These barrels gave a hint of maple character to the corn whiskey. The third level of experimentation is infusing the whiskey with botanicals — from cranberries or mint to serviceberries—that grow locally. Serviceberries are a relatively unknown berry with a complex citrus and cherry-like flavor.
The first two products are currently available only at the distillery, while the infusions are just an idea at the moment.
Athey, who has a geology degree from University of Dayton, lived in Cleveland’s Coventry neighborhood and worked in environmental remediation for two years with Arcadis before moving home to Canaan Valley, West Virginia, just 20 minutes from his distillery. His wife and business partner Maggie is from Warren, Ohio, but lived in Little Italy after graduating from University of Dayton and before marrying Athey.*