After a friend confessed a fondness for cheap whiskey, I indulged an urge to sample a straight corn whiskey from Heaven Hill called Mellow Corn. At $11.99 for a 750ml bottle, Mellow Corn is cheap. Very cheap. But to my delight, it’s also quite drinkable. As a “straight” corn whiskey, it’s at least 80% corn (the rest is rye and malted barley), unblended, without coloring or flavoring added. This particular straight corn whiskey is bottled in bond, which means that it’s 100 proof, or, 50% alcohol by volume. According to the distiller, it’s aged in used (not new, like bourbon) charred white oak barrels. Heaven Hill says it’s a predecessor to bourbon.
Unlike Canadian whisky (note the alternative spelling—no e), Bourbon and other American whiskeys are subject to strict rules governing how they must be made in order to earn certain classifications. Bourbon must be at least 51% corn, with the rest being other grains. It must be aged in new charred white American oak barrels for at least two years. And it need not be made in Kentucky, contrary to popular belief.
I tried Mellow Corn next to Jim Beam white label Bourbon for comparison. The Beam, which is my benchmark Bourbon, both for value and quality (seriously, it’s good stuff—but don’t take my word for it), was much smoother. Mellower, in fact, like a semi-sweet caramel. Mellow Corn, by contrast, was spicier, but not the way rye is spicier. It was harsher, but not because of the higher alcohol content. It had that distinct corn flavor you get from un-aged corn whiskeys, but tempered by the barrel aging, which I guess you could genuinely say mellowed it.
Next, I made myself a simple Old Fashioned out of it: two ounces of whiskey, one sugar cube, and two dashes of Angostura bitters, all stirred over ice and then served neat. This too was harsher than an Old Fashioned made with Jim Beam. There was an insistent and astringent cinnamon note that kept busting through the dilution, even through the bitters.
I like Mellow Corn, and I think I may start keeping it in stock in my home bar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the best whiskey out there. It’s a totally different beast from whiskeys in other price ranges. It’s going to taste different from Bourbon and it’s going to taste different from a whiskey that costs twice as much. But for the money, and as an example of straight corn whiskey, it’s certainly worth it.
My aforementioned friend, who like most Americans usually drinks Canadian whisky—Windsor or Canadian Club—likes the cheap stuff not just because he’s on a budget but because he likes the burn. (Don’t tell that to the people who’ve been marketing Windsor as “smooth” for the last few decades.) Why do some of us like these strong flavors? Why eschew the smoother tipples for a more robust, even offensive searing hooch? It could be a rewarding test of strength. Or a reminder that drinking ain’t too good for you. Or maybe it’s the same mild euphoria we get from hot sauce.
For me, the burn isn’t a big draw. I’m more attracted by the value proposition and the humble but well-designed label. I don’t know Mellow Corn’s history and I can’t find much online about it, but the label has a modest, almost generic look to it. It’s an appealing combination of yellow highlighted by red and green with a variety of well-mixed typefaces. It looks like a bottle that wouldn’t be out of place in the background of photo of some hard drinkers in the Deep South, circa 1950. The label says, “This may not be the good stuff, but it’s serious business.” Pleasing, honest looking graphic design can give a cheap whiskey an air of authenticity.
Compare it to the label of Fighting Cock Bourbon (about $17.99 a bottle), another product of Heaven Hill, which to me looks like it’s trying too hard. It’s too new, too now, brazenly trying to appeal to a younger generation, as its marketing materials reveal: “Through award-winning packaging and point-of-sale, and a unique and irreverent marketing campaign, Fighting Cock appeals to both male Gen X-ers and serious Bourbon lovers alike.” The beauty of Mellow Corn is that it doesn’t seem to be trying at all.
I predict Mellow Corn will go up in price by a few dollars a bottle in the next year or so as the popularity in un-aged corn whiskey brings more attention to corn whiskey in general. I saw this happen with Jim Beam’s rye: after selling for about $14 a bottle when no one cared, the distiller raised the price to closer to $20 when rye got trendy. Stock up on Mellow Corn now.