For the first time, the University of Illinois’ Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) worked with distilled spirits as a value-added Illinois farm product.

The IBRL in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) distilled and analyzed clear, unaged spirits distilled from five heirloom corn varieties and hybrid corn grown by Will, Dallas and Clayton Glazik of Silver Tree Beer & Spirits. The brothers, all ACES alums, are fifth-generation farmers near Paxton.

Brian Jacobson, IBRL manager, explained the facility helps companies and researchers scale up processing to bring products, ranging from ethanol to complex sauces and beverages, to market. Recently, IBRL obtained a new state-of-the-art still to process the Glaziks’ whiskey. Although working with distilled spirits is new to IBRL staff, Jacobson told FarmWeek he anticipated many potential uses, including distilling and brewing.

“Our goal is to find more uses for value-added products so we can provide value to the crops grown around us,” Jacobson said. “The big thing is to find more interesting ways those crops can be valued.”

IBRL staff ran distillation, performed chemical analyses and also measured conversion yields to learn if some corn varieties produced more alcohol than others. At the lab on June 25, professional tasting panels assessed the unaged, white product and “evaluated the grain flavors,” Jacobson said.

“If we find very interesting flavors from the grain, we hope to go back (to research) so it yields better,” he added, noting heirloom varieties have not gone through agronomic improvements compared to hybrids.

The Glaziks connected with IBRL through the Artisan Grain Collective, an organization that assists small businesses working within the food-grade grain supply chain in the upper Midwest. Jacobson is chair of collective’s Research and Variety Testing Working Group. The collective helped the Glaziks obtain a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant for their project.

Jacobson envisioned IBRL’s work also finding processes so grains that are infected with vomitoxin and aflatoxin can be used. He suggested by separating out the toxins through the distillation process, allowing the grains, especially organic grains like those grown by the Glaziks, to be used for spirits. “If you’re growing an organic grain, it can be devastating to have toxin in a high-value crop,” he said.

IBRL’s work “is to improve the industry whether that’s a product that’s been around for 50-plus years or some new distilling or brewing that serves a smaller market,” Jacobson said.