Sweet Potato Spirits
Fourth Generation Farmer, First Generation Distiller
Grain to glass is a very popular ethos in the craft distilling industry. It is a laudable goal to track the grains that go into one’s spirit all the way back to the field. David Souza of Sweet Potato Spirits in Atwater, CA takes this concept in a different direction. He runs what he terms a “farm to bottle” operation. Why the new phrase? Because his unique Corbin Vodka, named after his son, is the first to be made from whole sweet potatoes. Why sweet potatoes? Because David is a fourth-generation sweet potato farmer and the end product is unlike any vodka on the market.
If David has an issue with the sugar-source for his spirits, he only has himself to blame. Like many who grow up on farms, he has been working in his family’s fields since the age of 7 and has been involved in the business of running the farm since he was 15. To be clear, this farm isn’t just a little stand at a farmer’s market. Rather, the Souza family farm is one of the largest sweet potato farms in California. Of course, while he is proud of his family’s heritage and the farmland that taught him responsibility, David has not been one to sit still and simply manage what his family has built. He wants to make his own name, while also ensuring he has something to pass on to the 5th generation.
The idea for Corbin Vodka came from an earlier entrepreneurial “adventure” (as David likes to call it). David spent his early adulthood, during the slow months on the farm, building a name for himself in Las Vegas. He ran his own restaurant franchise and ultimately grew it into a nightclub promotion business. Running his promotion business introduced him to all the “junk” vodka on the market. He describes it as too many hangovers and not enough quality. He knew that he could make a better vodka and he knew exactly how he wanted to market it.
Besides having easy access to millions of sweet potatoes, David turned to his family’s produce for other reasons. First, he knew promotions and marketing, so he wanted to differentiate his product. Obviously, marketing the only sweet potato vodka in existence is a sure conversation starter. Second, he knew the characteristics of sweet potatoes. Not unlike a cider-maker, David has created a special blend of sweet potatoes for his vodka. As a result, he’s created a vodka that actually has a nutty character with a caramel sweetness finish. Because the sugars aren’t refined, Corbin Vodka isn’t designed to be sweet, but to have a subtle sweetness at the end. Finally, he used sweet potatoes as an extension of the family businesses. It allows him to take his family’s product to more people and introduce it in new ways. He’s using what prior generations built to set the business up for future growth.
The farm is providing a second source crop for David’s growing spirits portfolio – rye. Sweet potatoes require large open fields. During the fallow times, when the soil is resting, a cover crop of rye has historically been planted to keep the soil intact and to provide nutrients back into the land. Of course, what is just a placeholder crop to farmers can be turned into liquid gold by a distiller. Sweet Potato Spirits is now bottling and aging a blended whiskey and a 100% rye whiskey using the farm’s own rye. David is using everything that the family farm can give him and making the most of it.
Being on a farm in the middle of some of the most productive agricultural land in the world lends many benefits to a distillery. David points out that his distillery recycles 90% of the byproduct it produces. The spent sweet potato mash is easy enough to dispose of: surrounding dairies readily take it for their cattle. Wastewater from the still is either reused for cooking or goes back into the boiler for future production. Water efficiency is critical for a region beset with drought, as is the Central Valley, and David is clearly trying to be a good steward of his family’s land and resources.
Each bottle of Corbin Vodka is hand-bottled and, like the spirit they contain, the bottles are entirely unique. David wanted his product to stand out visually, not just qualitatively. He made the expensive decision to create his own bottle. After his first batch of labels didn’t adhere to the bottles correctly, he certainly learned that being unique has several unintended, hidden costs. Add on to that the cost of bottle design, production, and upfront costs, David, at times, questioned his decision to use his own design. However, now that he has worked through his early production run issues, he is very pleased that no other bottle on store shelves will ever look like his.
David Souza believes that every bottle Sweet Potato Spirits sends to market contains more physical labor than any other product out there. Adding up the physical demands of planting, growing, and harvesting sweet potatoes along with the work involved in mashing, fermenting, distilling, and bottling a sprit, he may be right. To him, the end product is worthy of the work that has gone into it. He’s raising the fifth generation that will own his family’s farm, so he knows that there’s more than just his pursuits tied up in his spirits business. He is growing a legacy with deep ties to the land upon which his distillery sits. That is why the labor is worth it to him. Farming taught him the value of hard work. The quality product he bottles contains nothing less than his best efforts.
For more information on Sweet Potato Spirits visit its website at http://www.sweetpotatospirits.com