Virginia Heritage Grain Project

Most Virginians are aware of the rich history our state possesses. Considered the “Cradle of America,” we are often reminded of its impact, whether due to historical settlements, myriad presidential birthplaces, revolutionary tenets, or its plights with indigenous and enslaved people.

As distillers, many of us recognize that Virginia is also the birthplace of American spirits. A distinction that holds us to account and presses us to embrace and preserve ancestral tradition. Nonetheless, somewhere along the evolution of crafting spirits, efficiency found its way in front of flavor. And as much as we are wisely advised to be cognizant of the parameters of yield, it also makes little sense to create a lot of a product that produces minimal interest.

Therefore, having been awarded funding from the Virginia Spirits Board Research and Education Grant Program, we have been tasked with studying some of our country’s oldest grains used in relation to the spirits industry, ultimately asking the questions, “Are the forgotten flavors of history waiting to be rediscovered? And are they worthy of being unearthed?”.

Project Scope

This study is three-pronged in that—simultaneously—we are

  • Actively and continuously researching and procuring grains
  • Planting and harvesting these grains
  • Distilling the grains

Locating Heritage Grains:

With the aid of seed savers—heritage organizations like Monticello, agronomists at the USDA germplasm, and also the Virginia Museum of History and Culture—we are identifying and locating heritage grains.

In The Fields:

We are working with researchers at Virginia Tech in different locations to plant, harvest, and collect data on these grains, and we’ve just begun contracting with private farms to further these trials with real practical implementation.

Studying the Distillate:

To add to that, we are collaborating with the James Beam Institute through the University of Kentucky conducting small batch distillation runs to create enough distillate to put in front of a sensory panel full of international industry experts who are evaluating the new make spirit and voting on whether they feel the result is worthy of barreling.

If so, that grain’s variety is put back into the seed increase portion of the program and will be grown out until sufficient to perform a full run on a production room floor where it will then be barreled, and its maturation progress followed. Any grain variety that is deemed faulty is taken out of the trial.

To mirror this evaluation—farming-wise, if a variety finds tremendous trouble in the field, we will consider removing it from the trial or study it in another location.

Our Progress Thus Far

  • 1. Fall 2023, we planted 13 heritage varieties of wheat, rye, and barley at two Virginia Tech locations
  • a. These grains are currently being harvested
  • 2. Spring 2024, we completed small batch distillation samples for eight heritage varieties of corn, wheat, and rye
  • a. These samples were placed in the hands of our ten-person sensory panelists for evaluation
  • b. The sample assessments have been curated and are currently being analyzed
  • 3. Spring 2024, we planted 22 unique varieties of heritage corn spread out between two Virginia Tech research stations and also two private farms
  • 4. Newly harvested grain is being assessed for the next round of small batch distillation
  • 5. The fall planting campaign is underway
  • 6. Fall/Winter2024, heritage grains studied from the perspectives of farming and small batch distillation success will be entered into the trial phase of a full production run

Why Virginia?

Virginia is poised as the perfect epicenter for such a study, because if we are to look at the oldest maps our early colonists cobbled together, we would find that Virginia’s waistline was rather bloated during those initial establishment years. The Virginia Territory encompassed a vast amount of land that included portions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even a sliver of North Carolina before the borders had settled into the shape of how we see them today.

Therefore, it feels rather natural to invite multi-state cooperation and involvement to further this fascinating research. To date, we’re working with people—whether farmers, maltsters, researchers, historians, or seed savers—from states all across our nation. Equally as exciting, our sensory board is made up of an international group of people who are all experts in their fields of spirit making and spirit evaluation.

Distillers, Farmers, and our Futures

In addition to chasing landmark flavors, many of us are aware of the necessity of paying attention to and taking care of the larger economic chain we are part of, whether that be the agricultural industry, the forestry industry, or any number of the business sectors we employ to cooperate in manufacturing our spirits. If they are suffering, we are suffering. As a distilling community who relies upon the strength of our partnerships, we must address their concerns as our concerns. For instance, geomodification—or climate change—is one of those anxieties.

By looking at alternative grains, we are:

  • Adding much needed diversity to crop rotation
  • Considering what’s best for the soil and environment
  • Embracing adoptive measures to breathe new life and healthy longevity into these spaces and into the marketplace

Our Project Goals

The Virginia Heritage Grain Project is also examining whether it can bring value to a wide swath of individuals and industries who are trying to be diligent stewards of our land and of our history, and ultimately, of our futures.

Most essentially, we are trying to create a growing database that will connect farmers and distillers to strengthen our local bonds and relationships. We are anticipating that this project will culminate after creating a state-wide product. One farmer and one distiller would be paired, they would agree on a heritage grain to grow and then distill, barrel, and bottle. That product would share the same bottle and label as the rest of the other participant’s spirits—the only difference being that the label would feature each individual farmer/distiller partnership and the heritage grain they’ve selected.

This project aims to highlight distillers all across Virginia and market our historic value and our unique appellation.

An Invitation

The project is now at the stage where we are inviting Virginia distillers into the study. If you would like to be considered for a position as one of the pilot distilleries, where your facility would be used to gather data via contract distillation, or if you are interested in participating in the project as one of the farmer/distiller collaborators, then please contact for further information.

Shelley Sackier is the Director of Distillery Education at Reservoir Distillery in Richmond, Virginia, the Principal Investigator for the Virginia Heritage Grain Project, and the author of Make it a Double: From Wretched to Wondrous: Tales of One Woman’s Lifelong Discovery of Whisky.