Charleston diners have grown accustomed to seeing the phrase “Jimmy Red” on restaurant menus, but the heirloom corn is now poised to transition from historical novelty to local staple.
“People revere Charleston Gold, and hopefully they will revere this bourbon,” Food for the Southern Soul owner Jimmy Hagood says of the spirit that High Wire Distilling Co. is planning to produce from his crop.
High Wire has previously offered a small run of cask strength bourbon made exclusively from Jimmy Red, an aromatic corn named after James Island. But owners Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall say a confluence of good weather, agricultural know-how gleaned from three years of experimental plantings and increased investment on their part should soon allow them to sell Jimmy Red bourbon year round.
“This is definitely the best yield we’ve seen,” Marshall says.
Hagood last week harvested just shy of 30,000 pounds of corn, representing a threefold increase from the previous summer. He’s one of three farmers supplying the distillery with Jimmy Red.
“We’d been talking about the idealized world of making rum, and then Scott came into our lives,” Hagood said of the partnership. He’s also grown sugar cane for the distillery to use in its rhum agricole, but High Wire has concluded its opportunities to influence the food system and encourage the revival of flavors lie with more recognizable liquors.
“It dawned on us that agriculture was the root of distilling, but how many people drink sorghum whiskey?,” Blackwell asks. “How many people drink rhum agricole? Not that many. But they drink bourbon. We’re sort of just scratching the surface, but I’m interested in any flavor that’s not commodity.”
In conjunction with Anson Mills, University of South Carolina professor David Shields successfully nominated Jimmy Red corn for Slow Food U.S.A.’s Ark of Taste, a list of foods that are judged to have outstanding flavor, cultural significance and the potential to be produced sustainably. According to Jimmy Red’s write-up in the Ark catalog, “this variety has some of the most unique visual and genetic characteristics of any red corn.”
Currently, all of the Jimmy Red from Hagood’s farm is being dried and milled for High Wire. But Hagood can envision one day growing still more Jimmy Red and turning it into grits, provided that his Colleton County fields keep getting enough rain and that a buck who’s figured out how to leap an 8-foot fence surrounding the cornstalks doesn’t cause too much trouble.
“Fingers crossed we can pursue this corn for years to come,” Hagood says.