Whiskey Business

In Eat, November 2022 by Melissa Howsam3 Comments

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Cook’s Mill Whiskey brings bourbon back home to NC.

What’s neat? Buying your wife an abandoned 1700s grist mill from Preservation North Carolina as a 10-year anniversary gift to upfit for weekend getaways—then discovering its condition and pivoting to salvage and revitalize it by producing a NC bourbon whiskey from corn grown, harvested, distilled and bottled in state. 

So goes the origin story for brand-new NC bourbon Cook’s Mill Bourbon Whiskey—named for that very pre-Revolutionary Alamance County grist mill NC native Jason Queen bought in Mebane, halfway between where he and his wife grew up (Burlington and Hillsborough, respectively).

“When we bought it, we finally got in and it was like they had just left the day before,” says Queen of the historic mill—one of only two remaining of the original 41 in the county. “All the hand sifters, corn bags and everything were still there—so we knew we had to figure out how to restore it and get it functioning again.”

Given grist mills aren’t exactly lucrative, Queen started imagining ways to restore the building without losing his shirt, he says. Inspirited by then new-to-scene Social House Vodka and New Southern Revival’s Jimmy Red Corn’s success stories, merged with his background in restaurants and, well, the corn (naturally)—Queen’s aha moment: a whiskey company with a portion of the proceeds going back to the cost of renovating the actual mill.

Inspired by the proud tradition of farming and distillation in our state, Cook’s Mill officially splashed on the spirits scene in October after being kept under wraps for years. A straight bourbon whiskey aged in new white-oak charred barrels for two years minimum, Cook’s Mill’s first iteration blends supreme flavor as a 3-year-old bourbon made with NC native corn and a dose of history.

Born “from the hills, fields and mills of NC,” this spirit is bringing bourbon back home to NC. (Fun fact: If it weren’t for Prohibition and the moonshiner migration, we would still be one of the leading whiskey makers in the country.)

But Queen isn’t bringing any run-of-the-mill bourbon. While upward of 99% of bourbon whiskey companies rely on GMO horse-feed corns, Cook’s Mill will be a game-changer as future iterations unfold—digging deep into our state’s agriculture to resurrect seeds for sheer sipping satisfaction. 

Across the state, the team is already working on farming myriad non-GMO heirloom corns native to NC—a cornucopia if you will—to yield ideal bourbon whiskey flavor profiles. To do so, Queen and his team partnered with experts at NC State who have dedicated their careers to native NC heirloom corns. The team isolated seven heirloom corns housed in a university vault in small amounts and offered them to Queen and his team for them to grow.

“These are real true heirloom seeds, original genetic varieties of these corns, that we have unique ownership of,” says Queen, “and there are only like a handful of some of these corns. They’ve never been commoditized—you can’t get them out of a catalog.” In fact, he explains, they were probably used by the pre-Prohibition NC moonshiners and distillers—and allowed to go out of production because of the dense GMO corns that are so much easier to grow. 

“It’s unique that we’re experimenting with these different heirloom corns and using them in a very traditional manner—in regards to bourbon-making—as we move forward with our small batches,” says Queen, acknowledging the spirit’s shelf volume. “This whole business we’re launching is really focused on high-quality small-batch runs of these native North Carolina heirloom corns. And the North Carolina connections are very important to us.” 

Queen and his team don’t plan to stop with one bourbon, one flavor profile or even one plan. “The goal is to really take an innovative approach—not unsimilar to the wine industry—trying different climates, soils and corns across the state,” he says, “then comparing once they start to age, and really starting to identify which ones are best and where and why.”

And, of course, to restore the mill—and, in a full-circle moment, eventually use it partly as the grindstones to create the brand’s whiskey “mashbill” (aka mix of corn, grains, etc.).  “Historic preservation serves a fundamental function in establishing a community’s sense of identity in the present,” says Queen—“and its idea of what it wishes to be in the future. The grist mill to us doesn’t just represent Mebane or Alamance County, it represents all of the Carolinas and its diverse communities. More so, it represents the best parts of us and our history, and what we want to carry into the future—that determination, that resourcefulness, that grit.”

“There’s a very long rich history of producing corn spirits in North Carolina and it’s just kind of been allowed to fall by the wayside,” adds Queen. “Our state was a really important area for it a long time ago—and it’s not being celebrated the way it should.” Until now. Find it on shelves (or ask for it) at any local ABC store statewide, cooksmillwhiskey.com

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  1. I can’t find an ABC that carries Cook’s Mill Whiskey. I really want to try it!

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