Tasting: 2 New Riff Heirloom Corn Bourbons (Yellow Leaming, Blue Clarage)

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Tasting: 2 New Riff Heirloom Corn Bourbons (Yellow Leaming, Blue Clarage)

For as geeky and obsessive as American whiskey drinkers get about so many aspects of bourbon, it’s sort of funny to think that we rarely examine corn in much depth. Corn is, after all, the heart and soul of bourbon whiskey–all bourbon is at least 51% corn by definition, and it often makes up 70% or more of a mash bill. And yet, more focus is often spent on the so-called flavoring grains of rye, wheat or malted barley, while the humble corn providing our whiskey’s backbone is characterized as … well, “just corn.” And yet, there is of course more complexity here than initially meets the eye, and Newport, Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling intends to highlight it in their latest bourbon releases focused on heirloom grains.

This is nothing new for New Riff, which has previously explored the unique flavors found in grain varieties such as Balboa Rye and Red Turkey Wheat in limited bourbon releases. Now they’re bringing forth a double release focused on two types of corn: Yellow Leaming and Blue Clarage, each of which gets their own Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey release as a spotlight. Both share the same grain bill of 65% heirloom corn, 30% rye and 5% malted barley, making them technically high-rye bourbons, and both are aged for five years, bottled at 50% ABV (100 proof) and carry SRPs of $56. They’re being sold primarily through New Riff’s Aquifer Tasting Bar, though some bottles will also be made available via Kentucky retailers and the brand’s Whiskey Club.

Personally, I just figure it will be interesting to sample a pair of bourbons in which only one factor is different: Species of heirloom corn. How apparent will that difference really be between the two samples? Let’s get to tasting, and find out.

New Riff Yellow Leaming Bourbon

The brand states that Yellow Leaming is a derivative of original Native American corn that dates back to 1824, amusingly referring to it as “one of the greatest corns in American agricultural history,” which would eventually be a common ancestor to modern American yellow dent corn. I chuckle a bit at the idea of someone listing “the greatest corns,” and yet it is a momentous thing when you think about it–given how integral corn eventually became to the American diet, especially in our use of corn syrup as a sweetener, it is an extremely important crop in every respect.

Regardless, on the nose the Yellow Leaming bourbon is delightful, classic and inviting in all senses–I’m getting sweet cornbread, caramel, wet oak, clove and a spiciness suggestive of cola or Dr. Pepper. There are traces of dark stone fruit as well, perhaps a bit of plum, and a very small amount of chocolate that can be teased out. On the palate, this is very inviting and moderately sweet, with lots of brown sugar and dark fruit syrup joining rye spice, plum and baking spice, with more of that cola-esque quality. This one tends a bit more toward the sweetness, with slight vanilla/maple cream at a very nice and satisfying level. All in all, it’s a really lovely, classic, moderately aged bourbon.

New Riff Blue Clarage Bourbon

As the name would suggest, the Blue Clarage is a blue corn, developed in the 1920s by farmer Edmund Clarridge in Clinton County. The distillery says this corn “creates a marked difference in whiskey compared to New Riff’s standard recipe, with more fruited, spicy tones.”

On the nose, what immediately stands out to me here is actually the rye grain in this grist–it’s coming out in a significantly more floral and herbal way, with some minty and flower tones I wasn’t picking up as much in the Yellow Leaming. I am getting cherry at the same time on the nose, along with more cinnamon over time. On the palate, the spice and rye are definitely amplified, and there’s also more impression of dry, toasty, spicy oak. I’m getting pepper, clove and cinnamon especially, and the Blue Clarage reads as a bit less sweet, finishing more oak inflected and dry. The corn has become more subtle, allowing the flavoring grains and the barrel to shine through more.

All in all, this is a very cool experiment, one that highlights what bourbon might be like with bolder or more subtle contributions from the corn as the backbone of the bourbon whiskey flavor profile. Classic bourbon lovers may prefer the greater richness of the Yellow Leaming, where I expect the Blue Clarage may appeal more to those who want the high-rye profile to peak through a bit more assertively. Both are nice bottles for the price point, especially given the heirloom grain novelty.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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