Or: Mama's in the Sorghum Patch!

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Sorghum and Rum, two words you generally don’t hear together. At the federal government level The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the TTB, define “Rum” as “Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products at less than 95% alcohol by volume, having the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to rum and bottled at not less than 40% ABV.”

Common Sugar Sane, Saccharum sp. is a tropical perennial grass, whose cane grows 9-12 feet in a 6-7 month season. Sugar cane contains 12-16% sugar. It is milled and processed for its juice to produce common table sugar. Sugar cane is grown primarily near the equator between 22ºN and 22ºS and requires 24″ rainfall per season.

Similarly, Sweet Sorghum is a grass, Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench, which grows 10 to 12 feet in a 90-day season. Sweet Sorghum is grown for its cane, which is then pressed for its juice. The sugar content of this sorghum juice is 15-18% when harvested. Sweet sorghum is a type of grass that thrives better under drier and warmer conditions than many other crops, so it is easily grown in the Central and Midwestern US. The primary use of sorghum is in syrup form as a sweetener, which is widely accessible throughout the US and Asia, from early times to the present. This makes Sorghum a Sugar Cane in my book.

At our distillery, we make a spirit, which is distilled from the fermented juice of Sorghum. The process we use to harvest the canes, squeeze the juice from the canes, ferment the juice, and ultimately distill this wine, is the same used in rum production from “sugar cane”. As a matter of fact, the genus’ Sorghum and Saccharum (sugar cane) are both in the same tribe, Andropogonae. The primary difference to us is that Sorghum meets our basic goal of producing spirits “From near at hand grains, fruits, herbs and roots”, there is no sustainable sugar cane grown here in Ohio.

Our first year producing this spirit, we used Starline Organics sweet sorghum. Matt Starline and I met at an Amish friend of Matt’s near Millersburg, Ohio where we pressed the organic canes Matt and his wife Angie grew on their organic farm in Guysville Ohio. We pressed all of Matt’s sorghum cane there with an old fashioned press designed to be powered by horse or mule. At the time I didn’t realize that we were bartering labor for the use of the press, but after the first hour or two of feeding the press and the hungry/happy horses then another couple hours helping stir the juice over a wood-fired evaporator, I made the connection. It ended up being such a great time, that 6 hours later when I was driving home with my 125 gallons of juice, I had 3 generations of new friends and a respect for the Amish lifestyle.

This first year, the juice was 11.8% sugar and fermented out to around 6.1% ABV. The distillate came purely from unprocessed, fermented juice, which I distilled twice through my pair of stills. I then aged this distillate with new charred American white oak, and some toasted oak from the same tree. There wasn’t enough spirit to age “in” oak, so I aged the rum “on” oak for about 3 months, meaning I torched and toasted 10 sticks of oak and added that to the stainless keg of 65% spirit. This mellowed the rum a bit and added a very light hint of gold color.

I must say, I had a hard time deciding what to call this product. In Taiwan and Mainland China a sorghum-based spirit known as Kaoliang jiu, literally “sorghum liquor”, is a popular spirit often sold at 38% and 58% ABV. This is not a common term in these parts so I decided against it, though I think the international population at OU might prove me wrong on that point. Our spirit isn’t made from the grain of the sorghum plant, so it is not a whisky. The TTB still may yet make me call it a “specialty spirit”, although I did receive federal label approval for Sorghum Rum. It isn’t a flavored spirit (like marshmallow vodka), meaning a spirit made from the sugar of one source and flavored by some component of another. It’s not a brandy; cane juice is not the same as juice from a fruit. So I settled on “Rum” for better or worse. The downside of this designation is this distillate has a distinct character which some may find to be different from their personal standards and expectations for rum. I find a reasonable similarity of flavors, but with another layer of complexity, which I feel makes it an even more interesting rum than one from Saccharum sp.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the website of Dancing Tree Distillery, which became Fifth Element Spirits, and has now become West End Ciderworks & Distillery.

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