Someone recently asked about a history of corn. I found one, in the sense that I have found references to it, but I haven't found the book itself. (It is out of print.) It supposedly has one chapter devoted to corn distillation. It is: Native Inheritance, The Story of Corn in America, by Howard T. Walden II, Harper & Rowe, 1966.
Ed Foote gave me a copy of an article on the history of corn. It may be this article. I will look and see and send it to you if you wish.
The weather being nice tonight (it's not raining), I decided
to head over to the agriculture library to have a look at
Native Inheritance, The Story of Corn in America.
It's out of print, but can be had from online used bookstores
The book is rather readable, written basically on the level of
an encyclopedia. The text immediately gives away the 1966
publishing date, gushing about the atomic age (including mention
of using radioactivity for genetic mutation...) with a tone that
betrays either a true belief in bright new tomorrows, or a conviction
that enthusiasm for technology will, in fact, defeat the Communists.
That said, it's a nice read all about corn. It's got a quick 12 pages
on the pre-history of corn in central and south america (apparently
"native americans" never saw wild corn), and then takes us from the
1700s to the 1960s in three pages, with a few statistics thrown in.
The rest of the book has detailed descriptions of hybrid corn, corn
processing, etc. I didn't know that first-generation hybrids are
vigorous, but vigor drops off in the second generation, so the best
corn is a first-generation.
The chapter on distilling is an basically encyclopedia-level description,
with plenty of glowing things to say about how how great distilling
is for modern agriculture.
Nearby on the shelf was The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell,
a nice 350-page coffee table book full of fun graphics and pithy
quotes. Basically a description of the culture of corn. There was
a chapter on distilling, basically being fun highlights from Carson's
Social History, Dabney's Mountain Spirits, and
Foxfire, with a bit of original research thrown in. It had some
early quotes about corn beer, about bourbon, and about moonshine
that I had seen elsewhere, but were well presented.
I'm still on the lookout for information on history of
grain agriculture in America, with information such as geographic
distributions of rye vs. corn throughout history, when and how
corn really took off in Kentucky, what early strains of corn were grown,
how exactly were rye and corn used at various times, relative prices,
etc. I think that at some point rye was cheaper and less edible
than corn, which lead to it's prevalence in distilling... but I
really have no authoritative references for such things. I'm
basically looking for information on the history of grain
agriculture in America with an eye towards the influence
of "the forces of agricultural history" on distilling.
I remember hearing an article about corn on NPR, a few years ago. The thing that has stuck in my mind is that in the 19th century, the Italians (in Italy) became so enamored of corn that they started eating it to the exclusion of everything else. They then had a mass malnutrition epidemic.
Truth can be stranger than fiction.