There are plenty of folks who may disagree, but, among the pantheon of great Southern consumable liquids, surely sorghum syrup and whiskey are among the mightiest. Neither are exclusively Southern, far from it actually, but both have a storied history in our region and an inescapable connection to it still. According to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association (the NSSPPA to those in the know), the two U.S. states that lead our sorghum syrup production are Kentucky and Tennessee. And what do you think of when you think of Kentucky and Tennessee? Whiskey. Thank you very much. So when you come upon the surprisingly rare meeting of these two Southern stalwarts – sorghum and whiskey – it is cause for celebration, like a soiree out on the lawn on a moonlit Southern summer night toasting the union of two lovely souls.
Let’s back up, though, and take a longer look at sorghum, which is surely the lesser known partner in this pleasure-powering duo. If you’ve ever driven through rural Tennessee in late summertime, there’s a good chance you’ve seen sorghum out in the fields. And there’s an equally good chance you thought you were looking at corn. Similar stalks, bright tropical green leaves, as high as an elephant’s eye. The sorghum stalks do produce a grain, again not dissimilar from corn (popped sorghum is a thing, and it easily gives popped corn a run for the money in the crunch and flavor department), but sorghum’s greatest gift to humanity is the syrup which comes from pressing those stalks and boiling down the juice. It was a staple on Southern tables in the first half of the 20th century, gracing biscuits daily, but fell out of favor as sugar prices fell and farm labor costs grew. Thankfully, sorghum syrup is seeing a recent rebirth in attention thanks to chefs like Sean Brock and Linton Hopkins around the region who are eager to fully embrace the region’s historic culinary riches.
Despite the fact that sorghum syrup production is down to just 5% of what it was back in the early 1900’s, there are still a handful of sorghum syrup artisans out there making products every bit as delightful as the finest Vermont maple syrup or Tupelo honey. The jug I happen to have on my counter was purchased at Atlanta’s Star Provisions, and comes from Muddy Pond, a Mennonite farm in Tennessee. Mark Guenther and his family have been working their soil since the mid-1960’s, and continue to win raves for their outstanding sorghum syrup. Imagine taking the best qualities of a floral honey, a rich molasses, and a deep maple syrup and you’ll conjure up something like Muddy Pond’s sorghum syrup. While we’re on the topic, to get a better feel for Guenther and his family sorghum farm, please go watch this short from the Southern Foodways Alliance – it’s a far more immersive introduction to sorghum than what these words will provide.
Now, as we turn our attention from sorghum to whiskey, let’s first think about sorghum as it relates to the world of spirits. Of course, sorghum can be used to replace sugar in cocktails (check out this fine concoction from H. Harper Station’s Jerry Slater, shared over on the Bitter Southerner), but it’s little stretch of the imagination to see that sorghum syrup could also be used in a manner similar to molasses – which is to say, as the basis for rum. Simply put, sorghum syrup has the sugar necessary to convert to alcohol, and the flavor to make it delicious alcohol.
But – you may ask – how do we get from rum back to whiskey, which was the whole point of all this? Well, there’s a bit of semantics here...