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.