New flavors satisfying the South's thirst

Owner Bruce Boeko of Nashville Craft poses at his new distillery.
Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

The South may be steeped in tradition, but it is also looking forward. Distilleries across the region are experimenting with native ingredients like sorghum and sotol. And the South's growing diversity has introduced liquors from around the world.

Liquor made from sorghum

Bruce Boeko has been turning sorghum into alcohol since he was in college. When Boeko, a science major, first encountered the classic Southern syrup, which tastes similar to molasses. He fermented it into sorghum wine.

“When I first started making alcohol from sorghum, I didn’t know anyone else who had done it,” he said.

Decades later, Boeko founded Nashville Craft Distillery. He now distills both unaged Naked Biscuit and aged Golden Biscuit sorghum spirits, which are two of his flagship products.

The Golden Biscuit is not too sweet with warm vanilla notes and a hint of field and straw. Although the sorghum spirit is made like a rum, it has a distinct, and distinctly Southern, flavor.

“They don’t raise sugar cane in Tennessee,” Boeko said.

At Nashville Craft Distillery, Boeko uses Tennessee ingredients when he can. He buys local corn for his bourbon. He distills local honey into a spiced honey liqueur.

“To me there is value in buying something local, whether it tastes different or not,” he said.

Liquid from the desert

Desert Door Texas Sotol is made from the sotol plants that grow near the distillery outside Austin. (Courtesy of Desert Door)

When Brent Looby and his buddies, Ryan Campbell and Judson Kauffman, came up with the idea for Desert Door distillery, they had no plans to actually make liquor. The idea was a project for their MBA class. They suggested making sotol, an obscure liquor made from a plant that grows in the Chihuahua desert that straddles Mexico and the United States. The response to the hypothetical distillery, however, was so good that these three vets decided to make it a reality.

Sotol, sometimes called desert spoon in the United States, is an evergreen shrub in the asparagus family. Desert Door collects the plants from ranches not far from the distillery in Driftwood, Texas.

“We created a revenue stream for a plant that had no inherent value,” Looby said.

In 2002, sotol was given an appellation of origin in Mexico, where it must be produced in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. Some argue that spirits from the plant made in the United States should use a different name.

The sotol plants are harvested like agave. Desert Door steams the sotol before distilling it. The final liquid has an assertive vegetable note that will appeal to the many fans of mezcal and stronger flavored tequilas.

A rare Vietnamese rice spirit

Tien Ngo and Suy Dinh could not find their favorite Vietnamese rice liquor in the United States, so the two friends made it themselves. Last November, they opened SuTi Craft Distillery just outside of Fort Worth, Texas.

SuTi makes two kinds of ruou de: Lion 45, which is more floral, from Texas rice and Old Man, which has a slight smoky taste, from Louisiana jasmine rice.

“It’s more like white whiskey,” Ngo said. “Our product has the aftertaste of rice.”

SuTi outside of Fort Worth, Texas, makes traditional Vietnamese-style rice liquor. The Lion 45 is made with Texas rice.

Ngo said most Vietnamese drink the clear liquor at room temperature with a meal. He is even winning over non-Vietnamese drinkers to the spirit that remains rare in the United States.

“We have people who like Vietnamese food, and they want to try a Vietnamese beverage. But they don’t drink as much as we do,” he said.

Currently, SuTi spirits are sold only at the distillery, although Ngo said they hope eventually to distribute them more widely. Despite that, SuTi’s rice liquor is getting around the country. Ngo said ruou de fans connecting through the nearby DFW International Airport often detour to the distillery to buy a few bottles to take home.

Sorghum Old-Fashioned

Nashville Craft Distillery created this cocktail with a double dose of sorghum: liquor and syrup.

Naked Biscuit, a new spirit made with sorghum syrup by Nashville Craft Distillery.

Ingredients

2 ounces Naked Biscuit Sorghum Spirit

1/4 ounce sorghum syrup

2 dash Angostura bitters

1 dash Regan’s orange bitters

Instructions

Combine ingredients in an Old-Fashioned glass with ice and stir to chill. Garnish with two cherries.

La Última Palabra

Looby of Desert Door particularly recommends his unaged sotol substituted for gin in a classic Last Word cocktail.

Native sotol plants are harvested for Desert Door Texas Sotol.

Ingredients

3/4 ounce Desert Door Texas sotol

3/4 ounce green Chartreuse

3/4 ounce lime juice

3/4 ounce maraschino liqueur

Instructions

Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake until cold. Strain into a coupe glass.