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Corn Connoiseur

Gary Hinegardner of Wood Hat Spirits in New Florence, Mo., Breeds His Own Corn to Make Craft Whiskey and Bourbon

Wood Hat Spirits, located in New Florence, Missouri, is a unique operation. Owner Gary Hinegardner uses special corn and an eco-friendly distilling process to make his bourbons and whiskeys.

But wait: where does the name Wood Hat come from?  “That comes from wood turning. I turn wood hats. I really loved the concept of the wood hat. … It’s just part of my life.”

When it came time to name the distillery, Gary noted that most distilleries are two words. “Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Maker’s Mark,” Gary says. “And my name’s Gary Hinegardner. That doesn’t fit into that mold at all! You can’t even put it on a bottle.”

Back to this unique operation. 

Gary first grew blue corn for whiskey in 2012. His background in both woodturning and agriculture—plus his observation that no one in Missouri was making truly local Missouri whiskey and bourbon—sparked the idea for the distillery.

“It always amazed me that we make the barrels, and a lot of the corn in Missouri goes to making Kentucky bourbon, we ship the barrels, we ship the corn and we buy back the value-added product,” Gary says.

His longtime friend and colleague, Dave Endres, a Kirkwood resident, has been growing corn for nine years.

“We have been through different stages in our lives dealing with woodturning, horticulture and whiskey,” Gary says.

Dave grows corn on an unincorporated plot of land within the 63122 zip code. The corn is bred and grown separately, so there is no cross-pollination. 

“I do not own enough land in Kirkwood proper to grow corn, but the piece of property that I own is in the 63122 post office. So is it corn grown in Kirkwood? No. Is it corn grown in that zip code? Yes,” Dave explains.

Gary emphasizes that Dave is not making whiskey in Kirkwood and that Wood Hat Spirits is a completely legal operation, not moonshine.

“I grow the corn and mill it and take it to Gary,” Dave says. “Then Gary handles the whole distillation part of it [in New Florence].” 

Wood Hat Spirits distills “63122” unaged corn whiskey as well as “It’s About Time” aged whiskey, both made with corn grown in 63122.

“The statement ‘It’s About Time’ is a statement of age,” Dave says. “Where that wording came from my mother. When I would get something done, she would say, ‘It’s about time you got that done,’” Dave says.

It also alludes to the aging process of the whiskey, Gary adds.

“We not only grow our own corn, we breed our own corn,” Gary says. “We’re the only distillery that I know of anywhere that breeds its own corn.”

Breeding his own corn allows Gary to better control the taste and mouthfeel of his bourbons and whiskeys. He says they are in the process of predicting how the corn they breed will taste when they make whiskey with it. 

“One of the things we do is we make clear whiskey from the corn. We make cornbread and grits from that corn so we know how humans respond to that taste,” Gary says. “That gives us an idea of what kind of whiskey it’s going to make down the road so we can continue breeding those lines for future whiskeys. We’re pretty unique that way. There’s no one else out there that we know of who’s doing what we’re doing.”

Gary explains that most whiskeys and bourbons use No. 2 Yellow Dent corn, which is why many of them taste so similar. 

“We can breed the corn specifically to taste a certain way,” Gary says.

For example, blue corn whiskey is smooth up front, big in the middle and has a smooth finish. Red corn whiskey is not so smooth up front and has a big, spicy middle and finish. A red/blue corn whiskey is smooth on the front and spicy on the back.

Eco-consciousness is an important part of Gary’s distilling process. 

He owns the only wood-fired distillery (that Gary knows of) in the United States.

“The biggest stave mill in the world is right next door to us, and I used to work for that company,” Gary says. 

The mill makes barrel staves, which creates waste that is ground up into chips. Wood Hat uses those wood chips to fuel its wood-fired operation.

“We take that scrap wood and heat oil. We pump oil into our plant to do our cooking and distillation,” Gary says.

Wood Hat doesn’t waste any electricity cooling down the product. Instead, the distillery uses either geothermal or a tank outside the building with a heat exchanger for the cooling water.

“We’re extremely green in that regard because of the lack of BTUs involved in our process.”

Wood Hat has coils both in and below the concrete floors of the distillery to heat the building.

“We don’t spend any energy de-watering our mash. When we finish making whiskey, we take the starch out of the corn, and all the protein, vitamins and minerals are left in there, which makes a really high-quality animal feed.

Gary says, “As an American, as a citizen of this world, it means a lot. I always tend to tread lightly on the earth in whatever I do, I try to do so in a manner that doesn’t affect my environment and my fellow citizens in a negative way. That’s kind of who I am.”

When the distillery was built, Gary says energy consumption was a prime concern. “I’m only going to make whiskey in a way that doesn’t impact our carbon footprint.”

You can find Wood Hat Spirits at any major liquor store in St. Louis. For more information or to schedule a tour, visit