Jersey Artisan Distilling: a Lesson in Sorghum
Before I met Brant Braue, owner and distiller at Jersey Artisan Distilling in Fairfield, NJ, I never had to think about sorghum much. It's a grain. (Wikipedia claims it's the "fifth most important in the world," without explaining how it came to that conclusion.)
Brant explains how sorghum is cultivated much in the same way you would wheat or oat. The difference is that its stalks can be pressed into a sweet liquid, similar to sugarcane juice. And like sugarcane juice, it can be fermented and distilled, just as you would with rum. However, you cannot call distilled sorghum "rum." That designation is reserved, by law, solely for sugarcane products. So what should we call it?
Brant, and other distilleries using sorghum, call it "whiskey," since it is technically a grain. Whiskey is probably the loosest classification of spirits. Being distilled from grain and coming out of the still at less than 190 proof are its only requirements. To make it even more whiskey-like, Brant ages his for one and a half years in new oak barrels of #3 char. I take a sip and sure enough, it has the distinctive bourbon notes of wood and grain. If I search hard enough, I can find a sweetness and even a little fruit hanging out there on the palate.
The distillery is a little hard to find, tucked in an industrial area behind a rinky-dink airport. I mean, there's a two-person plane taxiing alongside me on the road. Afterwards, I will wander into an Italian restaurant across the way, where the bartender confides she'll watch pilots get loaded and go off to fly.
Once inside Jersey Artisan Distilling, I see it's ginormous, like an actual airplane hanger. Brant leads me past barrels, tubs, a bottling table and a motorcycle to a very cozy tasty room, designed and constructed by him.
We embark on what ends up being a rambling (in the best way possible) conversation, where I learn not only about sorghum and deriving whiskey from it, but how Brant became one of its apostles. It turns out, sorghum found him - by way of the National Sorghum Producers, a lobbying organization. It realized, with a craft distilling boom taking off in state after state, that popularizing sorghum as a fermentation source could drastically increase demand. Through his extensive farmer connections, it found Brant to be their man.
Although it is most widely used as a grain substitute outside of the US, sorghum does have a history of being used to make American liquor. Hence the name of Jersey Artisan's sorghum whiskey: James F. C. Hyde. Hyde was a farmer/businessman/politician -as it seems all prominent men were back then- in Massachusetts of the 1850s. He popularized sorghum by throwing it into center stage of the slavery debate, raging at the time. Sorghum is amenable to most Northern climates and terroirs, while sugarcane is not. Hyde proposed that abolitionist farmers start growing sorghum as an alternative to Confederate sugarcane. Soon war came along and you know how the rest goes.
I like Brant because he's inherently a marketing-minded guy. That places him squarely within a rich tradition of liquor producers. Not to sound too cynical, it goes back to Jack Daniels the man, who cultivated his own mythology long before his whiskey got the full-on Coca Cola treatment.
Brant tells me of his idea of packaging absinthe and eau de vie in an ornate intertwined dual-bottle. He's getting worked about logos and commemorative boxes, when I ask if he has developed the recipe for either spirit. He dismisses me with a wave. "Ah, that's the easy part." It's like sitting with the young Jasper "Jack" Daniels himself, as he conjures up a reason to brand his whiskey Old. No. 7, with the premonition that it would someday conquer the world, or at least its bars and liquor store shelves.