View Full Version : Sorghum Whiskey

05-07-2008, 16:33
In another thread, Jono mentioned that, "Sorghum whiskey is brewed extensively in Asia."

Rather than divert that thread any further, I thought I'd go into this here.

"Sorghum Whiskey" is a misnomer, and a subject of a major international trade dispute with the European Union (EU) on one side and India on the other. The United States agrees with the EU.

There is a product made in India which producers and consumers there call whiskey. It is, however, made from sorghum or sugar cane, not cereals. Therefore the EU (and U.S.) won't allow it to be called whiskey in those markets. In the U.S., spirits made from sugar cane can be called rum. There is no specific designation for spirits made from sorghum, so they get stuck under some catch-all like "spirit specialty."

Corn (maize), wheat, barley, rye, sugar cane, and sorghum are all grasses, so what's the distinction? The U.S. regs use the term "grain" in the definition of whiskey. The EU uses "cereal."

Any botanists out there?

I assume the distinction is in what part of the plant is used. Whiskey uses the seeds. Rum and sorghum spirit use the stalk.

There is such a thing as grain sorghum. It is the third most important cereal crop grown in the United States and the fifth most important cereal crop grown in the world. It's primarily used as animal feed.

It's a sub-species known as sweet sorghum that is used to make spirits. It is processed much like sugar cane into a sweet syrup that can be fermented.

Sorghum is interesting because it was once widely cultivated and used in the American South, as it grows reliably in areas too far north for cane. Sorghum is an annual. Sugarcane is a perennial.

Sorghum syrup was to the southern states what maple syrup was to the North. Until the 1950s it was more popular there than sugar. Sorghum syrup was often marketed as sorghum molasses and since many of the people who used it weren't familiar with any other kind of molasses, they often just call it molasses, which confuses other people who think they mean the byproduct of white sugar production.

Sorghum molasses isn't as popular as it used to be but it still is made in the southern highlands. Using "molasses" is also confusing because true molasses is a by-product and comes in different grades, depending on how much of the sugar processing residue it contains. Sorghum molasses is the only product of sorghum processing and there is only one grade.

Since sorghum molasses was widely known and used throughout the South, one wonders if it was ever distilled? It very probably was on a small scale but I've never seen any indications that it was ever produced on a commercial scale.

05-07-2008, 16:47
Johnson Grass, aka switch grass, is a type of sorghum (Sorghum halepense) often mentioned as biomass for cellulosic ethanol production.

05-07-2008, 17:54
Thanks Chuck!

Interesting..with the prevalence of Sorghum in the south...it must have been distilled by someone.....the question would be...why didn't it get used for whiskey? Both sorghum and corn are distilled for fuel ethanol....not too different from whiskey distillation.

I found this tidbit: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=166501

"In sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), cyanogenic glucoside synthesis proceeds in the etiolated seedling tip (Halkier and Møller, 1989)." Potential for cyanide production to a toxic level? Hmm.....not a quality normally sought.


"Numerous Sorghum species are used for food (as grain and in sorghum syrup or "sorghum molasses"), fodder, and the production of alcoholic beverages......
Some species of sorghum can contain levels of hydrogen cyanide, hordenine and nitrates lethal to grazing animals in the early stages of the plant's growth. Stressed plants, even at later stages of growth, can also contain toxic levels of cyanide."


Common Grains and Nuts for Brewing Gluten-Free Beer

Includes sorghum....." is commonly used as one of the ingredients in African beer." Q seeds or stem?

"Nigeria: Nigeria produces a version of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout that uses sorghum."

05-07-2008, 18:11
Also -http://www.scib.gc.ca/pls/pp/ppack.info?p_psn=248&p_type=all&p_sci=sci&p_x=px

Notes on poisoning: Sorghum bicolor

General poisoning notes:

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is a cultivated plant grown as ensilage, as poultry feed, or sometimes as broomcorn, for its long, flexible, high-quality broom fibers. Sorghum can contain a cyanogenic glycoside that can produce HCN during times of stress or if damaged by frost or mastication. Modern sorghums have been developed for their low HCN potential and are normally safe. Sorghum can also accumulate toxic levels of nitrates. Cattle and rarely horses have been poisoned (Kingsbury 1964, Gray et al. 1968, Clay et al. 1976).

> Ok, use low HCN varieties for whiskey....any takers?

05-07-2008, 20:20
Tennessee anecdotes regarding sorghum/molasses:

Approximately 20 miles south of where I live, near Ethridge, TN, there is one of the larger populations of pastoral Amish outside of Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, who are much sought-after for their acumen at home-building, blacksmithing and horseshoeing, and agricultural products. Among the latter is sorghum molasses, frequently sold from road-side stands and buggies even here in my town. Should anyone be intrigued to sample some, drop me a PM, and I will seek some out when seasonal. When time comes to shop molasses, I'll inquire of these Amish if any are aware of historical distillation of their produce.
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, a leader in agricultural research, has recently planted 725 acres of switchgrass intended for use in a demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. It is one of the largest such demonstration projects underway.
http://www.biofuelsjournal.com/articles/Tennessee_Farmers_to_Plant_Switchgrass_This_Spring _for_Cellulosic_Ethanol_Demonstration_Plant-55004.html
Phil Prichard uses not sorghum, but Louisiana "Grade A Fancy" molasses, to make his signature rums, in Kelso, TN, not far down the track from both Jack Daniel's and George Dickel distilleries.

05-07-2008, 20:48
Thanks for the info on Pritchards...looks like a nice U.S. rum product(s) to try...and it is sold locally at Binny's and other stores.

here is a great review:


"Taste: Almost like a Islay single malt whisky, without as much peat or iodine but with a touch of molasses sweetness at the end (and what a long and delicious one at that). Lemongrass and a little mace (no NOT that kind, I mean the nut type) on warming, notes of Chinese fennel perhaps, traces of honey, ghee (Indian clarified butter) - dry and sweet at the same time, perhaps even a hint of cardamon.

Final Thoughts: This rum would be a great addition to a malt lovers cabinet - much more complexity and malt type notes than your average rum. I can easily see why a certain whiskey expert shamelessly raved about it at first (and more) tasting (s) at a rum festival. An extremely complex rum that can't be easily categorized- in a class by its own."

05-08-2008, 01:37
In South-Africa they name it kafferkoren,the native black people brewed beer from it,once had a bottle from it brought home by a friend visiting relatives there.I am curious at the whiskey but obviously it is not for sale in the EU due to legislation(that`s why a carrot is a fruit and not a vegetable in the EC),is there a website of where i can get it,without some EUcustoms officer asking questions?

05-08-2008, 05:35
Sunday morning I had breakfast at my grandmother's house in north Georgia with my parents and my mother's brother and sister. They broke out the sorghum syrup to put on biscuits. The sorghum was from a mill in Blairsville, Georgia, a place I would definitely put in the "Southern Highlands", a term I hadn't heard before but like a lot.

My grandmother is a teetotaler, and there was never any drinking in her house, so I was never exposed to any indigenous spirits that may have been in the area. I once acquired a jar of corn distillate, which she saw and recognized immediately, so I suspect I had some ancestors who partook. I think it was all corn, though, not sorghum.

My father was from South Georgia, and I grew up in the midwest of the state. We didn't have sorghum syrup in the house, but he made a point of importing cane syrup. Now I can buy it on ebay.

05-08-2008, 09:24
Thanks for the info on Pritchards...looks like a nice U.S. rum product(s) to try...and it is sold locally at Binny's and other stores.

I haven't tried the Pritchard's Fine Rum (a dark rum) but have treied the Crystal Rum (a white rum). It has a very strong caramel/butterscotch nose, which some might like but I didn't. You can vat it 1:2 with another white rum and the Pritchard's still dominates the aroma. Vat it 1:3 and it becomes a component among others (assuming you're using another rum with a lot of personality, like Mt. Gay Special Reserve).

As for sorghum molasses being used in distilled spirits, moonshiners often added other stuff to the corn mash to boost the alcohol. Sugar was probably used most often, but given the ubiquity of sorghum molasses I'm sure that got used too.

05-08-2008, 14:55
Since sorghum molasses was a locally-produced product, and at the time (before WWII) cheaper than sugar, it seems inconceivable that it wasn't used in moonshining. What's surprising, I think, is that they ever used corn when something that, presumably, is easier to ferment was available. Maybe it was the cyanide danger.

I once attended a country fair-type event where I saw sorghum syrup being made. I don't remember exactly where this was, but it was in either Kentucky or Tennessee. I don't recall what they used to press the stalks. What I do remember is the large cookpot. The stirring was done by a mule who dragged a large comb around the pot.

I have heard that Phil Prichard wants to use locally-grown sorghum but is discouraged by the fact that he can't call the spirit rum.

05-08-2008, 15:19
I don't recall what they used to press the stalks.

Check out this page:


Scroll down to the fifth row of pics, right hand side.

This also relied on mule power.

05-08-2008, 16:42
I remember as a kid visiting family down in Alabama and eating sorghum with bisquits at breakfast.
Also we went to see sorghum making down there once, saw the mule going around in a circle while a man fed in the corn stalks.
My family always had gallon pails of the stuff, they looked like the same kind that paint comes in.

05-08-2008, 17:23
...I don't recall what they used to press the stalks. What I do remember is the large cookpot. The stirring was done by a mule who dragged a large comb around the pot...

Here's a pic of one similar to those I've seen the local Amish use, only theirs sits vertically and also is turned by either a mule or horse, as you describe the pot comb above:

05-09-2008, 13:32
Check out this page:


Scroll down to the fifth row of pics, right hand side.

This also relied on mule power.

That picture reminds me that they did refer to the raw material as "cane," which confused me as first, until I realized it was sorghum. Tim's picture also looks familiar. I remember the pile of spend stalks, which I think they may have been using to feed the fire.