Sweet-Potato Liqueur Strikes the East Bay


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Image courtesy of Sweet Potato Spirits

Your favorite potassium-packed, pointy-ended tuber has just had its identity expanded. As of two weeks ago, sweet potatoes can now be sipped.

Or swigged. On September 8, Central Valley-based Sweet Potato Spirits officially announced its brand-new Corbin Cash Barrel Reserve Sweet Potato Liqueur. Now available in the East Bay at Jack's Oyster Bar in Oakland, Ledger's Liquors in Berkeley and the Hotel Mac in Richmond, this  sweet-smooth-spicy-earthy elixir is made from  sweet potatoes grown on the century-old family farm of Sweet Potato Spirits founder and distiller David Souza. 

"Growing up on a farm, I learned a wealth of things from my family besides growing food and using equipment," remembers fourth-generation sweet-potato farmer Souza, who launched the Sweet Potato Spirits distillery in 2009 in order to craft various farm-to-bottle spirits using his own crops. 

"I also learned manufacturing, welding, plumbing, and many other helpful things." When the spirit-making idea first struck him in 2005, "this knowledge helped me to build my own makeshift still. ...

"My typical day back then started at 5:30 a.m. I would get home around 6:30 p.m., and I would then cook and mash sweet potatoes on my kitchen stove. 

"The pans were large, so I would have to cool them down with bags of ice as they would not fit into my refrigerator. Once they cooled, I would then strain the solids out through metal strainers and pitch yeast. This was about a six-hour process just to do a five-gallon bucket worth of mash. ...

"Distillation on my still was a slow process and that is literal. I would finish the process by sleeping next to the still in a lawn chair inside my garage so as to make sure not to burn my house down. It would take around twelve hours to distill a 750-milliliter bottle of alcohol. I distilled over ten different varieties of sweet potatoes as well as our rye grain that we farm. I did this every week from 2007 to 2009 when I became an actual licensed distillery.

"I wanted to make a sweet potato whiskey, and they wouldn't let me," Souza says.

After learning to his dismay that only spirits distilled from grains can be legally called whiskey, Souza nonetheless let his unique new brew mature in oak barrels.

Later mixing it with brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, he created the world's first 100-percent-sweet potato liqueur -- whose sweet/spicy/earthy flavor was inspired by his mother's family-favorite sweet-potato squares, and which he named for his five-year-old son -- who "doesn't appreciate" this honor "quite yet," Souza says.

"I created it as a dessert drink, just on the rocks or with a splash of soda," says Souza, who likes it best on ice cream. "It surprises a lot of people -- it's sweet up front, but on the back of the palate and the finish, it's like a whiskey."

More than ten pounds of sweet potatoes are required to make one bottle of Corbin Cash. After they've cured, Souza blends several varieties. Using a proprietary process, the sweet potatoes are mashed, fermented and distilled through an alembic copper-pot still. Each batch of spirits is then taste-tested and adjusted. Later, the spring water used in production is recycled back to the farm for irrigation; the spent mash is used as fertilizer or cattle feed.

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