From bushel to bottle: Local farmer produces corn for Woodford Reserve

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By Walt Reichert

If you pony up the cash for a fifth of Woodford Reserve, you'll get a taste of Shelby County along with a sip of super premium whiskey.

The corn that is the principal ingredient of Woodford Reserve is grown right here in Shelby County - by Langley Farms.

Langley Farms is the sole provider of the corn that will make the whiskey that has won "best bourbon" awards all over the country and is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders Cup.

Doug Langley will sell approximately 30,000 bushels of corn to Woodford Reserve Distillery from the 2,500 acres of corn he will pick this year.

That historic distillery, founded in 1838 near Versailles, will mix his corn with rye and barley, cook it, distill it, store it in charred white oak barrels and pour it in small batches into numbered bottles.

Langley's corn is enough to make approximately 500,000 bottles of Woodford Reserve per year. The whiskey that will be sold throughout the U. S., Europe and Japan by Louisville-based Brown Forman Corp., the parent company of Woodford Reserve.

Special corn

The makers of Woodford Reserve, which fetches $30 or more per fifth, are particular about the corn they buy for their small-batch bourbon.

They require that the corn be from non-GMO seed, have a 14 percent moisture content, be extra clean, meet a minimum starch content, and be free of mold or other contaminants.

Woodford Reserve Production Manager Kevin Curtis said the company would not accept GMO corn because Europe and Japan have banned products with GMO ingredients and that the company would test the corn's DNA several times a year to ensure purity.

He said the corn is also weighed to be sure it makes at least 56 pounds per bushel and is tested for low moisture content.

"We want a dense kernel and we don't want to pay for water," Curtis said.

He said the company also runs the corn under ultra-violet lights looking for "glowers," which indicate the presence of aflatoxin, a deadly mold. Aflatoxin would not necessarily affect the whiskey, Curtis said, but would be harmful to the livestock that eats the distillers grain, which the company sells to local farmers.

The company also checks for problems with the corn in a less high-tech way.

"For lack of a better term, we smell it," Curtis said.

The smellers are sniffing for off odors that would indicate the presence of mold, mildew, chemicals or gas and diesel fuel, Curtis said. The corn is sniffed as it comes off the truck and a sample is heated in a microwave and sniffed again. The warm kernels often give off subtle aromas.

"I am happy to say that we've never found any problems," Curtis said. "Doug's corn always passes muster."

Premium price

Langley has been producing corn for Woodford Reserve for about two years. He got the deal after the Oldham County farmer who was growing for the company sold the farm and went out of business.

To produce the quality corn Woodford Reserve demands, Langley has had to make just a couple of adjustments in his operation. For example, he cannot raise any GMO corn on any of his 2,500 acres of corn land to avoid the chance of contaminating the batch sent to Woodford Reserve.

"If we ran a bunch of GMO corn through the planter and had just three or four kernels left, that could get into the Woodford Reserve corn," Langley said.

Langley also has to make special deliveries to the Woodford Reserve distillery several times a year because the company can store only about 2,000 bushels on site at any one time.

A trailer truck loaded with about 900 bushels of corn left the Langley farm in Finchville on Tuesday morning headed for the distillery. The truck was loaded from one of the bins on Langley's farm that can store about 80,000 bushels.

Otherwise, Langley said, "we don't do anything special."

But for his troubles, Woodford does buy Langley's No, 1 yellow corn at a premium above market price.

"It's been a good deal for us," he said.

What is GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism.

A genetically modified organism has had the DNA from another organism inserted into its DNA structure. In the case of corn, a GMO variety has a gene from bacteria, bacillus thurigiensis, inserted into the plant, which confers resistance to corn earworms and corn borers.

Much of the corn, soybeans, and canola grown in the U. S. is from GMO varieties, though concerns have been raised about the potential impact on the environment and human health. GMO proponents say the technology is less harmful to the environment because it can eliminate some spraying and tillage operations.

Nevertheless, Europe and Japan have steadfastly refused to allow GMO products into their countries, despite U.S. pressure to do so. And U.S. companies selling "certified organic" products refuse to use GMO ingredients.