Under the radar

Under the radar

Sorghum and corn: the AC/DC spirits

Mythbusters | 05 Feb 2021 | Issue 173 | By Chris Middleton

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Sorghum is the fifth most cultivated cereal in the world and the most popular grain in spirit distillation. The reason for this is because China has more than 40,000 distilleries using sorghum to produce their national spirit, Baijiu. Centuries before Germany and later Britain began distilling beer, in the 14th century, China distilled proto-whiskies from mashes of sorghum, barley and rice. More than 1.2 billion cases of Baijiu sold last year, exceeding the total worldwide sales of whisky and rum combined. Due to its rapidly rising popularity sorghum is touted as the grain of the 21st century.

Sorghum is a grass grain, native to North Africa and Australia. As a member of the Poaceae taxonomy, this means only cereal mashes from this grass genus can be classified as whisky by Western countries, along with barley, corn, rye, oats, rice, wheat, millet, and a few other grains. Pseudo-cereals such as quinoa and buckwheat produce non-grass seeds and cannot be categorised as whisky. The sorghum plant has another alcoholic revelation; its binary nature means it can also be classified as a rum or cane spirit when the liquid of the sorghum stem is extracted and converted into cane juice or boiled into molasses.

The modern species, sorghum bicolor, is of North African origin. Today, America is the world’s largest producer of sorghum, tracing its likely introduction by African slaves. It was not until after the American Civil War that government and farmers took an interest in this quick-growing cereal. In 1870, the US Department of Agriculture advocated the feasibility of sorghum as a staple crop. By the 1860s, Australia was starting to distil sorghum grain mashes to manufacture whisky, collecting awards at the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition. By the 20th century, sorghum whisky had all but disappeared, although it briefly made an illicit return during US Prohibition when moonshiners used sorghum molasses to distil ersatz whisky.

Indian corn, the world’s most cultivated grain, shares the same androgynous characteristic as sorghum: kernels for whisky, and cornstalks for rum. Modern ethnographers and archaeobotanists postulate early Mesoamericans domesticated maize for its sweet-tasting cornstalks, for chewing and brewing; the cultivation for grain came later. Maize’s sweet cornstalk syrup supplemented ancient brewing mashes of manioc and sweet potato. It echoes Robert Braidwood’s 1952 supposition that archaic Middle East farmers domesticated barley and wheat, not for bread, but beer. Sorghum was also selectively bred for its sweet-tasting stems and expressed sugar juice for making fermentable beverages. When Europeans arrived in America, cornstalk syrup was already in wide usage in northern America by the Iroquois and as far south as Peru by the Incas. Many of these First Nation peoples brewed alcoholic beers for social and ritualistic consumption.

... sorghum remained under the whisky radar until the 21st century...

Benjamin Franklin is credited with growing America’s first commercial crop of sorghum in 1757. Two decades later as the US ambassador to France, he promoted ‘mayz’ (sic) cornstalks: “stalks, pressed like sugar-canes yield a sweet juice, which, being fermented and distilled yields an excellent spirit”. America’s Revolutionary War distillers of the 1770s crushed cornstalks to extract the juice, boiled down molasses and distilled into ardent spirits. Until the 1960s it was not uncommon to find Appalachian families holding community ‘stir-offs’, boiling down sorghum and cornstalk juice for its molasses. Cornstalks, sorghum stems and sugar canes contain between 12 and 16 per cent sugar; only sorghum’s panicle and corn’s cob also have dense heads of kernels, rich in carbohydrates which makes them the AC/DC distilling powerhouse for either whisky or rum.

While sorghum remained under the whisky radar until the 21st century, a dozen micro-distilleries in America and Australia are making iterations of sorghum whisky. In Queensland, an industrial sorghum grain distillery has 100 million litre capacity for ethanol and potable spirits. Is sorghum posed to become a new whisky trend? Consumer acceptance and regulatory codes will determine the future of this Janus cereal plant.

Clarifications & Corrections - Updated 15/4/21
In this piece, the author explained sorghum stalks can be pressed, juice extracted and fermented, then distilled. A line included the statement: “…it can also be classified as a rum or cane spirit...” The use of ‘rum’ as a descriptor for sorghum-derived spirit is currently contested. The widely accepted definition of rum used by our sister-brands Rum Magazine and the World Rum Awards mirrors common regulatory definitions of rum as derived only from sugarcane – specifically, fresh-pressed juice, syrup from the juice, or molasses that results from sugar production. However, currently the use of sorghum is permitted for rum production by the TTB in the United States, the country of focus in this column.
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