Farming is either in your blood or it's not. Whether it's a longtime family profession or a spiritual calling, you don't just decide one day to till the fields.
For the Souza family, which calls the San Joaquin Valley home, the land has been a calling for more than five generations. Their stock in trade is sweet potatoes — 10 varieties, to be exact. Until recently, the tubers were grown to be sold for eating. Then David Souza started distilling them, creating a distinct line of spirits that today includes vodka, gin, liqueur and even whiskey.
"The whole basis of the company started 100 years ago," says Souza, who today is the master distiller at Sweet Potato Spirits. "My great-grandfather started farming in the valley [and] I've been working on the farm since I was 7."
In his 20s, Souza got into the restaurant and nightclub business and even produced a sweet potato–based vodka called High Roller specifically for the Vegas market. But Vegas wasn't Souza's calling. He returned home and taught himself how to distill.
Of the flavors in the resulting distillate, he says: "We grow about 10 varieties of sweet potatoes [including] an orange and white variety. Put these in an oven, bake them on 400 for 40 minutes. Cut them open, don't put anything on them. They taste like they have a stick of butter in them."
Sweet Potato Spirits has been a licensed distillery since 2010. The company produces a sweet potato gin, a barrel-aged sweet potato liqueur and even a sweet potato rye whiskey, along with its popular vodka, Corbin, which has placed high in spirits competitions.
The vodka is distilled only once. While you might expect it to taste like sweet potatoes, it doesn't. "The sweet potato alcohol is more viscous, because it has more residual sugar, but it has more of a caramel-y, nutty flavor," Souza says.
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The whiskey is a 100 percent mash bill of all rye (which has also been growing on the farm for the last 100 years) aged three to four years in American white oak barrels of varying chars.
While only the vodka is commercially available right now (in L.A., at places such as Spring Street Bar and Messhall Kitchen), the other spirits should see release soon.