Making Booze with the Amish – the Original Hipsters

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in: Soapbox

These days you can’t walk into a decent bar without a mixologist in full mustache, vest and fedora pretending it’s 1930. Or sample a new product without the Brand Ambassador’s rolled up sleeve sporting an inked martini glass or cocktail shaker. In a time of great economic distress, it seems everyone under age 30 would prefer to retreat into an imagined history rather than the one unfolding before them. It is this devotion to nostalgia and religious attachment to the past that I can’t help but think about every time I work with my Amish friend Ervin, a farmer of sweet sorghum whose crop is produced exclusively for my newly minted liquor: Sorgrhum: America’s First Sweet Sorghum Spirit.

As the father of 13, Ervin is the patriarch of an Old Order Amish family outside Bromer, Ind. They speak Pennsylvania Dutch and have no phone, electricity or Internet. In a way, they are the original hipsters, their handmade clothes and beards are further qualifiers. As my partner Stuart Hobson and I began to realize our vague idea of turning sweet sorghum into a spirit, I noticed a parallel between the Amish determination to keep modernity at arm’s length and the bartenders and spirit-producers I know who are so intent on their products being produced “by hand.”

After 150 years of keeping technology out of their lives, could the Amish teach us something about the perils or advantages of remaining firmly planted in old ways? They don’t drive cars, have phones, smoke, drink, watch TV, or have more than a vague notion about Facebook or Twitter, but they can predict the weather by the wind, build their own homes, find water underground, and provide food and clothing for very large families without relying on technology. Is living in the past such a bad idea?

Getting into the Spirit

Sorgrhum begins with a crop of sweet sorghum, which begins with Ervin and two of his sons growing and cutting the cane in their field. Sorghum looks like corn, but is taller and has no ears. After cutting, the stalks are laid out in rows and left to dry for a few days so the sugar can concentrate. Then the boys pile the cane as high as they can on a flat wagon pulled by a team of draft horses. The cane is taken to a large cast-iron mill, one of very few still in working condition. These are often more than 100 years old and weigh up to 500 pounds each.

The juice-filled stalks are fed through the mill by two men working in tandem, while a team of draft horses turns a long wooden arm connected to the mill. The gears groan as the stalks are turned into pulp, or “pommies” as the Amish call the mash, leaving only a sweet green liquid which flows into what’s called the sugar shack, a small barn that contains the evaporation pan and firebox. The pan is fit with horizontal chambers, like a maze for lab mice. Wood-fired from below, the green juice begins an intense boil from one end of the pan to the other, scraped into the chambers with long-handled wooden scoops. The impurities are drawn out, leaving only a sweet, honey-colored liquid. And so, sweet sorghum is born, a perfect companion for biscuits.

A first taste of sorghrum

But why stop there? At this point in the process Stuart and I intervene. We buy the syrup by the truckload and drive several hundred gallons to our distillery in Indianapolis. There, we turn it into Sorgrhum. It takes several weeks for all the sugar in the wash to ferment, creating myriad deep fruity esters and flavors that are finally distilled in our 400-liter German copper pot still. The final product is earthy, sweet and fantastically complex, a true distillation of the terroir created by Ervin’s 3-acre plot of land.

Like a mix between rhum agricole, cachaça and the finest Highland tequilas, our sorghum spirit tastes great with citrus, a little simple syrup and bitters. We also take a portion of the fresh white distillate and age it for several months in new heavily charred white oak barrels to create our signature Sorgrhum Dark, a spirit as complex as any dark rum on the market. If we do say so ourselves.

No complex machine touches this product from the time the seed is planted in the ground, through its harvest, distillation and bottling. Every step is done by hand. But does that make it taste better? No. Still, the hands-on process  takes us back to another era and reminds us what it means to touch what we create. It reminds us of the time it takes to craft something special. It helps us learn how to do what we do faster the next time without losing our connection to the final product.

The danger of adhering too adamantly to the Code of Handmade, as our Amish friends and our Prohibition-obsessed mixologists illustrate, is that it can keep us from implementing ideas that may lie beyond its borders. But Ervin gives me hope that even the most steadfast embrace of tradition can be loosened given the right opportunity. I watched Ervin, after 50 years of hard and abstemious living, take his first sip of hard liquor — my liquor. Or, better, our liquor, a spirit that began in his fields, born of  sweet sorghum seeds descended from those his family planted generations ago, and cane that was cut by his sons. The Sorgrhum coated his mouth and lips, and his face expanded into a toothy grin, his daily stoicism replaced by the surprise of a new experience.

It makes me think that while we may explore our chosen niches as deeply as we like, we should never forgot the broader world. Armed with the knowledge collected from the past, a perfect, unexpected taste, can, and should, propel us into the future.

Photo: Matt Colglazier. Credit: Chris Howell


This week’s Zester soapbox contributor, Matt Colglazier, is the cofounder and co-creator of Sorgrhum, America’s first sweet sorghum spirit. He lives in Bloomington, Ind.

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