I don't know why I didn't tackle this subject sooner because it appears the current drought in the midwest could put a serious dent in Kentucky's Bourbon production. The more I talk to people at the major distilleries, the more I'm beginning to break out in a cold sweat. Yesterday afternoon I communicated with Jim Rutledge, the master distiller for Four Roses, and he had the following to say:
I don’t think I’m telling you anything you haven’t already heard, but my three main concerns are: 1) will we, the Bourbon industry, have a sufficient supply of corn, 2) will the drought have a negative impact on the quality of corn and 3) the cost. I’m pretty sure we’ll see prices per bushel that we’ve never seen before, but the cost is a minimal concern relative to the supply and quality of corn. Relative to quality – it’s not worth producing and barreling a proof gallon if the quality is not excellent. My philosophy has always been: quality is always premier to quantity, and do it right the first time when filling up a barrel. My focus has always been on the distillates, the white dog, versus what comes out of the barrel. If you do it right from the get-go there aren’t many worries with matured barrels of Bourbon.
When Mark Brown told me the other day that each distillery would be affected based on "how they account for the corn used," this is what he meant. Jim at Four Roses is very selective about his base product because he believes the distillate is the most important part of the process (others may stress cooperage over distillation). If he's forced to use corn that doesn't meet his standards, that also happens to be more expensive (and that he may be lucky to even get anyway), he would end up making limited amounts of Four Roses Bourbon that he didn't like and having to charge us more to drink it! That would be awful. Knowing Jim, I think he'd rather make less whiskey than make Bourbon that didn't meet his personal approval. So far, Four Roses has been one of the few Bourbon distilleries to avoid any serious supply shortages of aged stock, but that may change if they have to limit production due to a lack of corn.
Another interesting dilemma resulting from the corn shortage is the use of GMO (genetically modified) corn in distillation and if distilleries like Four Roses and Wild Turkey, who normally choose not to purchase it, will be be forced into changing their policies. Again, I'll be posting more on this story as I find more information.