On February 21, 1972, President Nixon, his staff, and members of the American media attended a banquet in Peking to mark the beginning of Nixon's historic trip to China. The ceremonial drink that night was mao-tai, a sorghum spirit with an alcohol content over 50 percent. Alexander Haig had sampled the drink on an advance visit and cabled a warning that "Under no repeat no circumstances should the President actually drink from his glass in response to banquet toasts." Nixon ignored the advice and matched his host drink for drink, shuddering but saying nothing each time he took a sip. Dan Rather said it tasted like "liquid razor blades."
Mao-tai is just one category in the broad class of Chinese sorghum liquors known as baijiu. Other grains can be used — millet, rice, wheat, barley — but sorghum has a long history in Asia, where the earliest distilled spirits from the grain were made two thousand years ago.
Survival of the fittest
Why sorghum? It isn't the flavor, certainly: baijiu and sorghum beers aren't winning many medals from tasting panels. But sorghum happens to be incredibly drought-tolerant and easy to grow in poor soils. It can wait out periods of stress and bounce back quickly. A thin waxy cuticle keeps the plant from drying out, and natural tannins protect it from insect attacks. Young shoots produce cyanide in response to drought, which is deadly for livestock but protects the plant during a critical time.
Sorghum is, in short, a survivor. This makes it the grain of famines and poverty. It has kept people alive in times when nothing else would grow. Its simple presence in highly populated, poverty-stricken areas around the world make it the default grain for home brews.
Sorghum and millet are often mentioned in the same breath; the reason for this is that "millet" is a catchall term for at least eight different species of grain, including sorghum, that produce panicles, or small seeds in loose clusters. Some millets are called broomcorn; the broom shape is an apt descriptor. Like most millets, sorghum is a dense, tough grass that can grow to fifteen feet.
It originated in northeast Africa around Ethiopia and the Sudan and was domesticated in 6000 BC. Because it was such a useful food source, it spread across Africa, making it to India over two thousand years ago. From there it went to China along silk trading routes. There are over five hundred varieties, broadly categorized as sweet sorghum or grain sorghum. For the purpose of making alcohol, sweet sorghum is better for pressing sugar from the stalks to distill a drink like rum, and grain sorghum is better for beer or whiskey.
The grain is not particularly useful for bread making because it lacks the gluten that allows dough to stretch and rise, but it is used to make traditional flatbreads. The mouthwatering Ethiopian injera is made from sorghum or teff, another milletlike grain.
Sorghum's main advantage is that it is high in fiber and B vitamins, supplying much-needed nutrients when food is scarce. Once corn became widespread, this was especially important: an exclusively corn-based diet can cause pellagra, a dangerous and even deadly B vitamin deficiency. Eating corn in combination with sorghum prevents pellagra.
The most practical use of the grain is as a porridge or gruel; for this reason, the first fermented drinks made from sorghum were simply thin porridges allowed to sit for a few days until the alcohol content reached 3 or 4 percent. Traditional African sorghum beers are made today in much the same way they were for thousands of years. The stalks are cut and the grains threshed by beating them on a wooden platform or a grass mat, and then the grains are soaked for a day or two to start the germination process. They are spread out, usually on a mat of green leaves, and covered so they will germinate for a few more days. Enzymes in the grain get to work converting starches to sugar. The malted grains are combined with hot water and ground sorghum, and then are allowed to cool. After a few days of natural fermentation, it might be brought to a boil again and allowed to cool, then more malt is added and the fermentation continues for a few more days. Once the beer is ready, it is only slightly filtered, resulting in a cloudy or opaque drink.
Making sorghum beer is often women's work. International aid groups are reluctant to discourage the practice because it brings in a little money and does give the family some nutrition. Children are given the dregs of sorghum beer to drink; the thick, yeasty remains are low in alcohol, generally free of harmful bacteria, and high in nutrients. In fact, the only real danger presented by sorghum beer comes from the containers used to brew a batch. Some Africans are genetically predisposed to iron overload, and the iron kettles or drums used for brewing, combined with the iron naturally found in sorghum, can result in beer that is dangerously high in iron for them. Unwashed containers that previously held pesticides and other chemicals have also been implicated in accidental beer-related poisonings, but the beer itself was not to blame.
Fifty years ago, this kind of homemade beer represented 85 percent of all alcohol consumed on the African continent, but that's changing quickly. Premade ingredients — sorghum flour, yeast packets, brewing enzymes — are cheap and widely available, as are "just add water" beer mixes. One step up from homemade brews is Chibuku, a fresh sorghum beer sold in cartons. The beer continues to ferment in the carton, so it has to be vented to allow carbon dioxide to escape; otherwise it would explode. One brand, Chibuku Shake-Shake, has been purchased by the global beer conglomerate SABMiller, showing just how much money there is to be made from cloudy, sour sorghum beer.
In fact, SABMiller is working to put sorghum to better use as a beer ingredient. The company has contracted with thousands of farmers in South Africa and other African nations to grow sorghum for its breweries. This allows the company to make bottled "clear beers" that resemble Western-style beers and sell them locally for less than a dollar each. Home brews can still be made for pennies per serving, but beer companies hope that Africans with just a few dollars to spend will spend some of it on higher-quality beer.
The grain is widely grown in the American South; in fact, it's the fourth largest crop in the nation, behind corn, wheat, and soybeans. Some form of broomcorn was grown during in the eighteenth century, but sorghum as we know it today wasn't grown here until a remarkable set of experiments began in 1856, when the editor of American Agriculturist magazine planted a seventy-five- foot row of sorghum from seed he imported from France. The crop he harvested — sixteen hundred pounds in all — went out in small packets to his thirty-one thousand subscribers. He repeated the stunt two years later. The United States Patent Office distributed large quantities as well, including varieties sourced from China and Africa. With free seeds arriving by mail, it didn't take long for farmers to start growing it as a fodder and grain crop — and then they realized it made good moonshine, too.
In 1862, American Agriculturist ran an advertisement for "sorghum wine," made from syrup pressed from the sweet stalks, which was touted as being "difficult to distinguish from the best Madeira wines." North Carolina governor and U.S. senator Zebulon Vance, reflecting on his days as a Confederate officer in the Civil War, remembered a drink made from sorghum "sugarcane." He said that "in its flavor and in its effects it was decidedly more terrible than 'an army with banners,' " meaning that it was worse than enemy fire. Which is not to say that Vance was opposed to homemade hooch. He disapproved of whiskey taxes and revenue agents chasing after moonshiners; in 1876, he complained that "the time has come when an honest man can't take an honest drink without having a gang of revenue officers after him."
Sorghum syrup liquor continued to be produced illegally. In 1899, moonshiners in South Carolina were arrested for making a sorghum spirit called tussick, which probably got its name from "tussock," a clump of grass. It was also called swamp whiskey for the swampy water that went into it. North Carolinian moonshiners referred to their sorghum cane spirit as monkey rum; while the term has disturbing racial overtones, some writers at the time claimed that it was so named because drinking it made a person want to climb a coconut tree.
Sorghum moonshining continued well into the twentieth century. In 1946, when postwar grain shortages posed a problem for moonshiners and legal distilleries alike, a four-thousand- gallon still in Atlanta exploded, and the fire destroyed three thousand gallons of sorghum syrup intended for distillation. In 1950, 789,000 tons of sorghum were used to make legitimate distilled spirits, but that number dropped to just 88,000 tons by the 1970s, the last time statistics were kept. From the 1930s to the 1970s (the only years the numbers were published), more sorghum was distilled than rye.
In spite of our long tradition of making spirits from sorghum — and in spite of the fact that even now American farmers produce four to six million gallons of sorghum syrup, there are very few sorghum spirits on the market today. In 2011, Indiana-based Colglazier & Hobson Distilling began production of a sorghum syrup rum, which they're calling Sorgrhum. (It can't legally be called rum, because rum, by law, can only be made from sugarcane, so the decidedly unromantic name "sorghum molasses spirit" or "spirit distilled from sorghum molasses" must appear on the label instead of "rum.") The Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, Wisconsin, makes small batches of Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey. This, in addition to the sorghum beer being marketed to gluten-intolerant beer drinkers, may represent the beginning of a sorghum revival in the United States.
An international incident
Sorghum grain has also been an important beer ingredient in China, and the Chinese learned to press the stalks of sweeter varieties to extract the juice and make wine. But the distilled hooch known as baijiu is China's best-known sorghum drink. The style that President Nixon drank, mao-tai, is said to have originated in the Guizhou Province over eight hundred years ago. The story — which is often repeated but impossible to verify — is that mao-tai was sent to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. A Chinese official, worried that the national product was being overlooked, dropped a bottle and shattered it, allowing the smell to permeate the exhibit hall. That got people's attention, and it won a gold medal. (Unfortunately, no records of this incident, or of the gold medal, survive in the exposition's archives.)
Mao-tai, and particularly a premium brand called Moutai, is the beverage of choice for banquets and celebrations. It made the news in early 2011 when prices hit two hundred dollars per bottle in China while selling for half that in Europe and the United States. The distillery is state run, so the high prices caused protests by citizens who felt their national drink should be more affordable to them. (Meanwhile, of course, people brew their own in homemade stills.) Although government secrecy makes Chinese markets notoriously difficult to analyze, liquor industry experts believe that if the most popular baijiu brands reported their sales, they would easily outstrip the world's other top-selling brands, including the current leader, Jinro soju, and other popular brands like Smirnoff vodka and Bacardi rum.
The mao-tai served to President Nixon was surely the best China had to offer. At the state dinner, Prime Minister Chou En-lai held a match to his glass to show the president that the spirit could be lit on fire, a fact Nixon filed away for future use. In 1974, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told another Chinese official that the president tried to repeat the trick for his daughter when he returned home. "So he took out a bottle and poured it into a saucer and lit it," Kissinger said, "but the glass bowl broke and the mao-tai ran over the table and the table began to burn! So you nearly burned down the White House!"
This recipe, named after a popular sweet sorghum cultivar, is dessert in a glass.
1/2 ounce sorghum syrup
1 1/2 ounces bourbon (or if you don't like bourbon, try it with dark rum)
1/2 ounce amaretto
Because sorghum syrup can be too thick to easily pour or measure, try spooning it into a measuring cup and heating it in the microwave for 10 seconds with a very small amount of water, just enough to make it easy to pour. (Alternatively, drop a dollop of the syrup in the cocktail shaker and hope for the best.) Shake all the ingredients over ice and serve in a cocktail glass.