Rick Pedersen is a very patient man.
Case in point: Horton rye, an extra-spicy heirloom rye that he cultivated from a small envelope of seeds from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for a project with New York Distilling Co. in Brooklyn. Co-owners Allen Katz and Tom Potter approached Pedersen, seeking an heirloom rye with New York ties for their rye whiskey. From that first contact to mashing took seven years, as the few seeds they started with had to be planted, harvested, and repopulated over and over to obtain enough grain to mash and distill.
Katz and Potter wanted an organic rye, according to Pedersen. “[They] wanted to see what we could do that might be unique. I contacted the [National Small Grains Collection] seed repository in Idaho, for every class of commercial crop plant.” Seed repositories stockpile seeds from around the globe, dating back centuries, in order to preserve their genetic material until someone like Pedersen offers them a new lease on life.
Pedersen traffics in heritage grains—varieties that are not commodity products. They provide him an opportunity to play historian, forensic detective, and geneticist all at once. Pedersen Farms, the 1,200-acre property he owns in Seneca Castle in New York’s Finger Lakes region, is essentially a sanctuary dedicated to resurrecting long overlooked grains from around the world to determine if they’re viable for whiskey making.
What makes a particular grain a good contender for distilling is based on various biological factors, like growing conditions. A grain’s reaction to the climate, seasonal changes, even length of daylight will determine its health and yield. But before Pedersen can test a specimen’s viability, he needs to grow enough for a mash, a task that, as Horton rye proves, can take years. Like the distiller waiting for his whiskey to age, the farmer waits for his grain to grow.
Cornell University professor of plant breeding Mark Sorrells also runs the Cornell Small Grains Breeding and Genetics Program; he worked with Pedersen on the Horton project. Sorrells says the last five years have been a grain renaissance. Until recently, not a single acre was dedicated to growing barley in the Northeast since before Prohibition, whereas now he estimates that barley grows on 6,000 to 7,000 acres. The cost is a bit higher than commodity grain from the Midwest because of land availability and labor issues, but it’s a price distillers (and brewers and bakers) are willing to pay for locally grown heritage grains.