Collection Connection: Whiskey and Research

“There’s a deeper story to almost all of these,” says Ralph Haynes as he peers into a box of dried corn cobs. The co-founder of Pinckney Bend Distillery is meeting with Garden research staff, exploring the herbarium, and flipping through the pages of rare botanical books—taking a deeper look at the intersection of his passion (whiskey) and ours (plants).

Booze and botany are more intertwined than you might assume at first glance. Plants are one of the main ingredients in alcoholic beverages. Wine, for instance, comes from the fruit of Vitis vinifera (grapes) while the female flower clusters of Humulus lupulus (hops) help flavor your favorite beer.

When it comes to whiskey there are four plants typically used by distillers—barley, wheat, rye, and corn. It is a fascination with the latter that brought Haynes to the Garden’s Monsanto Research Center.

Specimens of Zea mays from the Anderson-Cutler Maize collection in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Herbarium.

Haynes is by no means a stranger to the Garden. He and his wife first became members in 1983. The distillery is also a frequent vendor at several popular Garden events, such as Best of Missouri Market and Spirits in the Garden.

But it was a different event that piqued Haynes’ curiosity with our corn collection. A friend told him about the corn display at the Science and Sustainability Open House, where he met research assistant Taryn Pelch.

The Corn Collection

The Garden’s Herbarium is an important resource for scientists and botanists, but it holds a wealth of information useful to anyone interested in plants—even whiskey-makers.

The Anderson-Cutler Maize Collection includes some 8,000 ears of corn (Zea mays) from all over the world. The cobs in this collection come in all sizes and colors, from popcorn to sweet corn. As an important crop to native peoples, there are specimens historically used by the Navajo, Cherokee, and by civilizations across Central and South America. Pelch works to curate and catalogue all of these specimens, some of which are more than 100 years old.

While perusing the collection, Haynes also picks the brain of Dr. James Miller, Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation, to learn more about plant genetics and other resources for researching heirloom varieties.

Zea Mays Herbarium Specimens_Cassidy Moody
Research Assistant Taryn Pelch shows a box of 160 tiny ears of red popcorn from Argentina to Ralph Haynes of Pinckney Bend Distillery

From Seed to Sip

whiskey barrel
Quercus alba (white oak) – This species of oak is native to much of eastern North America including Missouri.

Pinckney Bend Distillery makes a line of heirloom whiskey. These specialty spirits are made from rare varieties that were historically important before the introduction of hybrid, large-scale, commercialized corn.

The journey from kernel to cocktail can take several years. Heirloom seed is acquired from sellers like Seed Savers Exchange, then planted in small test plots next to the distillery in downtown New Haven, Missouri. Those plots produce enough seed to plant an acre the next growing season.

After harvest, the corn is mashed, fermented, and aged in charred white oak barrels. Pencil Cob, Hickory Cane, and Pipe Corn are among the varieties that went from the land to a liquor bottle, and Haynes has plans to test even more heirloom options.

Distilled History

The Peter H. Raven Library is another incredible resource for botanical knowledge. But the show-stopper, especially for non-botanists, is always the rare book room. The collection includes a first-edition of Species Plantarum, the book by Carl Linnaeus considered the basis for modern plant taxonomy. Not far away is a book, De Historia Stirpium by Leonhart Fuchs (1542), containing the earliest published illustration of corn—referred to here as Turkish Grain.

Ralph Haynes of Pinckney Bend Distillery views an illustration of corn from the rare book collection of the Peter H. Raven Library

Doug Holland, Curator of Library and Digital Services, has another surprise in store: a pair of 500-year-old manuals on making spirits. The texts are in German and Early Modern English, but the illustrations speak for themselves.

Haynes says anyone who knows anything about making liquor would instantly recognize the drawings as stills. The designs are a bit different from their modern descendants, but the process is strikingly similar in its simplicity—heating a liquid, condensing its vapor, and collecting the results for consumption.

In the 16th century, plants were distilled mostly for their medicinal properties, and the books containing these images were often referred to as herbals or materia medica.

Explore the digitized version of our 16th century distillation books with the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Kreuterbuch (a German herbal published in 1550)

The vertuose boke of distyllacyon (an Early Modern English translation of Das Distilierbuoch published in 1527)

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Full Circle

During his visit, Haynes also spent some time with curators from the Garden’s William L. Brown Center. The center studies the relationships between humans, plants, and their environment—a discipline also known as ethnobotany. While whiskey distilling and plant science may seem worlds apart, they share many common threads.

Both study the properties of plants, their evolution, and the stories behind it all. Our collections are full of information, objects, samples, and specimens used largely by other researchers in the same or similar fields. But we love being able to help enthusiasts of any stripe learn more about the natural world.

Now to plan our own field trip to New Haven to see how Haynes and Pickney Bend Distillery are putting this new-found knowledge from the Missouri Botanical Garden into action.


Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist

Learn more about the botany behind some of your favorite beverages: 
Grapes in the Garden: The Science, Production, and Appreciation of Wine
Plant Profile: Hops

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