Missouri's Whiskey Renegades
“We send them the corn, we send them the wood. What’s wrong with this picture?”
By Tony Rehagen
The world is awash in whiskey stories. Grab any bottle of Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, scan the label, and brace yourself for a sepia-toned yarn about so-and-so’s great-great-grandpappy, a yellowed handwritten mash bill, a pioneering spirit, and a dedication to tradition that would almost have you believe you were drinking a drop of the old man’s lifeblood in every glass. In short, the distiller is telling you that they handcrafted this precious liquor because divinity and genetics decreed that they could serve no other purpose on this Earth, and what you are drinking is a piece of history. And that’s fine.
But Gary Hinegardner—a scientist and conservationist, who is, truth be told, not all that much of a drinker—makes Missouri corn whiskey for an even older, and quintessentially Midwestern, reason: He does it because it makes sense.
Hinegardner is an agronomist by training. He began his career working for a University of Missouri extension office about fifty miles east of Columbia, in Montgomery County, where he went on to manage the area’s Farm Service & Supply Co-op from the late-1970s until the mid-1990s.
During that time, he witnessed bushels and bushels of Missouri-grown corn being shipped all over the world. Then, in 1995, he took a job at Independent Stave Co., a large cooperage in New Florence, Missouri. Over the next seventeenth years, he watched barrels made from Missouri oak roll out to distillers across the globe, including those in whiskey-soaked Kentucky and Tennessee. “We send them the corn, we send them the wood,” Hinegardner says. “What’s wrong with this picture? Why send it to Kentucky?”
Since 2017, Hinegardner’s Wood Hat Spirits has sought to keep Missouri’s homegrown bounty here and distill it into spirits that are every bit as sophisticated as those aging in Midwestern oak down in Bourbon County—or for that matter, over in Scotland or Ireland—but without all the drama. Because while Hinegardner himself might look like he just leapt off a whiskey bottle, with his long white beard, suspenders, and, for publicity photos, hand-hewn wooden hats, his distillery is forward-thinking and no-frills.
First off, there’s no pastoral farm scene, no tree-lined country road. Visitors take Exit 175 off of Interstate 70 for New Florence, about seventy-five miles west of St. Louis, past the BP and McDonald’s, then double back down an outer access road. There, instead of a flashy visitors’ center and an industrial whiskey factory, there’s a simple single-story building with a creaky storm door. Inside is a small showroom with a tasting counter and one shelf that holds bottles of all thirteen Wood Hat releases, from the Aged Blue Corn Whiskey to a newly christened “Missouri Bourbon” called Bloody Dapper to a line of cordials made from locally grown blackberries, persimmons, and black walnuts.
The bulk of the operation, of course, starts with corn. Most whiskey is made from #2 Yellow Dent, the same corn used for animal feed and ethanol production. Wood Hat uses its share, grown at farms in nearby Jonesburg and Owensville. But, ever the scientist, Hinegardner prefers to experiment with heirloom corns, including blue and red varieties and some new strains that he himself has crossbred in a small field behind the distillery. “I’ve always been amazed that so much of whiskey is made out of corn that pigs eat,” Hinegardner says. “Why don’t we use corn that people like to eat?”
While plenty of boutique distilleries advertise that they are field-to-glass, Hinegardner is more proud of a different claim: carbon-neutral. The heart of Wood Hat’s operation sits beside the building, in a trailer-sized furnace. On a distilling day, Hinegardner or one of his crew arrive at 5 a.m. to start the fire, using the flammable heads from a prior distillation. They then shovel on wood scrap gathered from a nearby stave manufacturer, which burns at 1,400 degrees—hot enough that, once the blaze gets going, there’s virtually no particulate discharge, no smoke or ash, flying into the atmosphere. That heat warms food-grade oil that is then piped into the distillery through coils in the 850-gallon still, one of the few wood-fired commercial stills in the country, if not the only. They use open-air tanks and heat exchangers to cool the mash. Their spent grain goes to livestock on the farm in nearby Owensville that grows much of distillery’s corn, fertilizing it with those animals’ manure and ash from the furnace.
The other thing absent from the hallowed Wood Hat grounds is the typical old black-timbered barn or barrel house where the angels take their share. This distillery doesn’t even have a warehouse. Instead, the juice goes into a row of padlocked metal shipping containers, each holding racks of labeled and dated fifteen-gallon chinquapin oak barrels. Even this is no mere function of frugality or necessity. It’s a crucial part of Wood Hat’s scientific process. The key to aging whiskey is letting the spirit interact with the wood, moving in and out of charred staves with the weather and soaking up flavor and character. When you store the barrels for years in a dark barn or, more likely, a climate-controlled warehouse, you’re not maximizing the interaction between whiskey and wood, Hinegardner says. “When the sun shines on these metal containers, the heat pushes whiskey into the wood every day—even in the winter,” he says. “And when the sun goes down, the container cools off, and the whiskey comes out. When the temperature isn’t doing anything, you’re not really aging your whiskey.”
The result is a diverse array of distinctive whiskey experiences. There’s the Rubenesque, a mellow 100-proof blue corn bourbon, named one of the first official Missouri Bourbons after Gov. Mike Parson signed the classification (51-percent corn and 100-percent Missouri ingredients and barrels) into law in 2019—the fruit of a movement that Hinegardner help advance. Or Bloody Butcher Red Corn Whiskey, a smooth, peppery sipping spirit that clocks in at a surprisingly strong 121 proof (60.8 ABV). During the pandemic, the distillery had to pivot to making barrels of white-dog hand sanitizer—which financially “saved our ass,” Hinegarder says. Now, Wood Hat is back to producing about 1,000 bottles of whiskey, bourbon, and cordial per week.
Oh, and about the wooden hats: It’s a rare hobby that Hinegardner picked up after years of woodworking. He honed his technique through correspondence with a Scandinavian artist who is considered one of the world’s foremost hat carvers. The two men gradually chop, cut, shave, and whittle 60-pound chunks of wood down to cardboard-thin top hats. Guests at the distillery can see a showcase of Hinegardner’s works in the tasting room, and maybe even try one on.
What does crafting wooden hats have to do with making whiskey? Maybe the two employ the same drive to experiment with non-traditional materials. Maybe both rely on a similar yeoman’s work ethic or craftsman’s patience. Or maybe it’s all about knowing wood. Hinegardner doesn’t force a connection. It’s there if you need a story to think about while you pour from a bottle of Missouri whiskey.
Tony Rehagen is a St. Louis-based writer and beer enthusiast (which is redundant). His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Politico, The Washington Post, and Jack and Jill.