Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Standards-of-Identity Brain Teaser


Riddle me this, Batman. When is whiskey not whiskey?

Arguably, when it's sorghum whiskey.

Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey is a product of the Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, Wisconsin. The rules say whiskey is "an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain." The U.S. Grains Council describes Sorghum bicolor, the species in question, as the "fifth most important cereal crop grown in the world."

So no problem, right? Sorghum is a cereal, i.e., a grain, so sorghum spirit is whiskey. The Federal regulators obviously agree, because Old Sugar got its label approved and is selling the product now. 

But Old Sugar's product, like other distilled spirits made from sorghum, is not made from the plant's seeds--as is the case with whiskeys made from corn, barley, wheat, rye, etc.--but rather from a sweet liquid derived by squeezing the plant's stalk, much like sugar cane.

Sugar cane, it should be noted, is also a grass, like corn and the other cereals, but spirits made from its sugary juice are classified as rum, not whiskey. Phil Prichard, he of the Tennessee distillery that bears his name, has argued that sorghum spirit should be classified as rum. Unfortunately, the rule for rum is explicit. The source must be sugar cane.

But since the sorghum plant's seeds are not used to make sorghum spirit, it's clearly not made from "a fermented mash of grain," and so shouldn't be classified as whiskey either.

Old Sugar follows the rules. Their sorghum whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels. It's not clear if those barrels are single-use, as required for bourbon, et al, but let's assume they are. It certainly is a legitimate distilled spirits product, but is it whiskey?

All spirits made from grain go through a process in which enzymes are used to convert grain starches into sugar, so fermentation can take place. Sorghum juice is sugar already, like cane, and so doesn't go through that process. The resulting liquor tastes more rum-like than whiskey-like, so someone expecting whiskey characteristics might be disappointed.

So, what do you think? The Batputer fried its circuits on this one.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Everything seems to be there on the label with the exception of what part of the sorghum they were using. So, not as disturbed as I might be should I have made this a purchase with less information present. Enough for me to research it up front before purchase. Probably more a case of bad regulations than a company trying to pull the wool over someone's eyes. What else could they call it and get the idea of the product across? I am at a loss as well other than saying it is a barrel aged distilled spirit.

Am more comfortable with this than perhaps potato whiskey as I am not sure potato is a grain.

T Comp said...

It is ridiculous this has label approval as whiskey. Of course 99.999%...oh hell, 100%, of those purchasing will not know or care.

Redneck Scotch said...

I think the regs are simply wrong and it should be called sorghum rum (I think a competitor goes by the clever name Sorgrhum). This is the problem when government does what should be done by independent and voluntary private associations. But, I know the definition of whiskey has a long, contentious history. At least we aren't being offered stuff with creosote in it.

It would be cool if someone made an actual whiskey from sorghum seed.

Lazer said...

I'm thinking about making some Hamburger Whiskey, distilled from 100% grain-fed beef. Shouldn't have a problem with label approval. Who wants to try some? Pairs well with french fries. Yum!

merd said...

Do we need to revisit 303 (potato) Whiskey? http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/showthread.php?17585-Potato-Whiskey

Seems to me that the TTB must've been slipped another Mickey.

Chuck Cowdery said...

This one is a closer question, since the plant source is a cereal plant. The rules just say 'grain.' They don't define it. I would say 'grain' means the seed of a cereal plant, therefore sorghum spirit is not made from grain and not whiskey. But someone else might argue that it means any product of a recognized cereal plant, which this is, so it is whiskey. Law is funny like that.

rdavek said...

I love when I open a blog post and learn something new, which is generally the case with your blog. Thanks for continuing to be one of the original voices in the echo chamber. BTW, I just finished reading Bourbon, Straight, about time I know, but better late than never. Great read and a must for anyone with a passion for whiskey!

Anonymous said...

Barrel aged vodka?

Anonymous said...

How about some, "Beetlejuice Whiskey"? Made exclusively from grain pests that've spent a certified 100% of their lives feasting upon grains. Our mashbill: grain borer, maize weevils, flat grain beetles, rusty grain beetles, sawtooth grein beetles, mealworm beetles, carpet beetles, khapra beetles, alfalfa snout beetles, brown marmorated stink bugs, Indian meal moths, European crane flies, false coddling moths, confused flour beetles, red flour beetles, flour beetle larva, meal mites, book lice, grain mites,

Rob K said...

I think TTB is wrong to let this be labeled as a whiskey. I think it's going to cause confusion. I see this labeled "sorghum whiskey" and my first thought is that it is fermented from a mash of sorghum grain, not that it's fermented from the sorghum cane syrup. On the other hand, knowing that in the US sorghum is mostly used to make syrup from the cane, I would be unsure.

Looking at their web page, I see that it is made from the syrup, not from a mash of the grain, so yeah, I feel it's mislabeled and misleading (not that I think they're intentionally being misleading). Since sorghum syrup is almost indistinguishable from molasses, this is surely much more like a rum than a whiskey. The bottle of Colglazier and Hobson's Sorgrhum that I picked up a couple of weeks ago is just like rum. I think they'd do much better with their marketing to drop the whiskey label, and market it as a rum-like spirit.


Harry said...

I don't know that the TTB can be blamed, but this is the problem I had with Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon Moonshine. It's marketed using the buzzwords ("moonshine," "distilled from corn") we reserve for un-aged whiskey. So it "follows the Johnson family's recipe," but it's also triple distilled. Did the Johnsons really triple distill "to deliver a clean tasting spirit"? I would have guessed that moonshine distillers would have distilled once, and to a lower proof than vodka is distilled to. The whole story seems to shoehorn what is basically just another vodka into the the whiskey world. It may not break any rules and the audience for it may not care, but I still think it's deceptive.

Anonymous said...



IDEA -----> Vermont Maple Syrup used to distill Vermont Maple Syrup Whiskey.

Could be BIG SELLER in Canada !

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Well, well.... Another unclear and/or misleading label-creation due to unintended consequences of poorly crafted government regulations... Who'da thunk gov't regulators were so dumb? The folks at 'Sugar' might be missing a good bet by not marketing it as a perfect "Gluten-Free" option for those of us who are afraid of distilled grain spirits.

mark fleetwood said...

Genuine Wisconsin Sorghum Imitation Indian Whiskey.

The Bitter Fig said...

Sorghum spirits don't fit in any TTB category, to my understanding. It isn't rum since it isn't from sugarcane. It isn't vodka unless it's treated to be without distinctive character. It isn't whisky because it isn't distilled from a mash of grain. It isn't brandy because even if you classify sorghum syrup as a juice, it isn't the juice of a fruit. Probably the only place it might fit is the catchall category for "distilled spirits specialty" at the end of the list.

This is just a situation where the TTB classifications need updating.

///

What someone needs to make now is a distilled spirit from sugar cane seeds. That's really be a brain-twister.

mikejaz2 said...

Aw, hell, fellas, who gives a rat's chapped ass how it's classified...how does it taste? ;~)

Seriously, I understand the need to classify. Sounds like the rum category should be expanded to include the expressed juices of all grasses and grass-like plants (Prairie Bluestem hooch, anyone?)

I think its a product category worth expanding...

Redneck Scotch said...

Good question mikejaz2. I'm sure Robert Parker will be delivering his review very soon.

Charles McGonegal said...

AeppelTreow in Burlington released a sorghum spirit (distilled spirit specialty) the year before Queen Jennie came out. It has since been relabeled as Brown Dog Whiskey. The TTB reviewer I (I am an AEppelTreow owner) drew said that 'sorghum whiskey' wasn't a recognized clas and type - and so I had to go with the lowest common denominator 'whiskey'. It's specified in my formula that I'm using the syrup - so I'm not trying to pull the wool over the TTB's eyes.

I would note that the TTB reporting forms specify 'grain and grain products'. It's my opinion (and only my opinion) that the rules are more flexible than supposed. I have not (yet) attempted to get a corn syrup or 'maize stalk wine' spirit labelled as bourbon - but I keep thinking about it.

For the folks who equate sorghum syrup with molasses - the comparison is superficial. It looks a bit like molasses, but it is the result of a different plant and different process, nearly entirely fermentable, and more importantly, smells and tastes like chicken feed during fermentation. Once diluted, it's grain character is obvious. The characteristic aromas and flavors of a plant aren't necessarily localized to the seed/fruit of a plant. As a cidermaker, I can taste the apple in apple blossom and apple wood infusions, as well as in the cider.

I like the product my wife distills. So do my customers. No one coming to my tasting room seems concerned about the possibility of weakening the identity of more traditional kinds of whiskey.

Seth said...

Personally, I think our rules are more confusing than they're worth, in a day and age where getting some sort of review or tasting note is pretty easy. For example, if I bought a Sorghum alcoholic product, I really wouldn't be expecting the designation (whisky, rum, vodka, etc) to really tell me anything about how it's going to taste and if I bought it without finding a review first, then shame on me, if I end up not liking it.

heather greene said...

Why not call it American Barrel Aged Baijiu? The Chinese have been drinking sorghum liquor called that for a long time, mostly in Northern China. Or do we now call Baijiu Chinese whiskey?

Tom said...

I saw this in a store a couple of days ago, right next to the spelt whiskey. It was a puzzler, especially given the Old Sugar Distillery, but it didn't occur to me that someone was trying to fool me. What would something labeled "Sourghum Whiskey" fool me into thinking it tasted like?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'm not suggesting the Old Sugar folks are trying to fool anybody. There's no evidence of that. That's what makes this a head scratcher.

Anonymous said...

We are intending on offering a spirit made from Kentucky Sorghum Molasses. The sorghum grain (which are the size of BB's) have a lot of fiber, same starch as corn but no flavor. All the flavor is in the stalk where the sweet juice is. We contacted the TTB for guidance and we were told it wasnt a Rum or anything else but a speciality spirit made from sorghum. It isnt a rum, it taste a lot better, smoother sweet finish. Problem is its also very expensive..

Wilderness Trace Distillery
Danville, Kentucky