I spent the majority of my Spring Break just relaxing with friends and family in my quiet hometown of Atwater, Calif. However, I couldn’t help but take a tour of one of Atwater’s most innovative, unique and fun agricultural operations.
Story by Jennifer Ray, Photos provided by Christine Woodman and Sweet Potato Spirits
Only in Atwater Calif. will you find a sweet potato vodka distillery. That’s right. David Souza’s family has been growing sweet potatoes in the San Joaquin Valley for five generations and he believed there was more that could be done with the nutritious vegetable. After over one and a half years of experimenting, Souza created an award winning product, the world’s only sweet potato vodka.
Why is this the world’s only sweet potato vodka, you may ask?
“I wouldn’t be so passionate about it if it weren’t for the challenge,” Souza said.
Vodka is made from distilling fermented substances like grains and potatoes. However, making vodka from sweet potatoes is a little harder. It takes ten pounds of sweet potatoes to make one 750 ml bottle of vodka. Every sweet potato used is hand selected and cured for upwards of 16 months. Souza has developed his recipe, which includes eight varieties of sweet potatoes, all grown on his family farm. Sweet Potato Spirits currently hand bottles about 800 bottles per week, a process that requires five people.
Souza and his two employees, two business partners, family and supporters believe the end result is worth the cost and effort. The unique product is one of the smoothest spirits on the market. The 33 judges at the 2011 World Spirit Competition in San Francisco gave it the Double Gold Medal. Some enjoy the vodka served straight at room temperature, but for those who prefer it with a mixer, the vodka actually enhances the added flavors.
The sweet caramelized taste of sweet potatoes makes the vodka smoother than other spirits. “There’s not a hint of the earthiness you get in traditional potato vodka; ours is a much cleaner taste,” Souza said.
However, the product may not meet every taster’s expectations. Souza jokes that some tasters expect the sweet potato product to be sweeter. “It’s not going down like Gatorade if that’s what you’re thinking… It’s sweet for vodka, but its still vodka,” Souza said.
The sweet potato vodka was first released under the label, High Roller Premium Vodka. This summer the company will release its new label, Corbin: California Estate Premium Vodka. The new label is named after David’s only son, Corbin Cash Souza. The product was originally marketed in Las Vegas, where Souza had previously worked in the restaurant and event promotions business for six years. Marketing a new label to nightclubs turned out to be more challenging than expected. High Roller is currently distributed to local liquor stores and across the nation.
Souza did not originally set out to make his own sweet potato vodka from scratch. After selling his businesses in Las Vegas, Souza developed his recipes and then presented it to manufacturers, hoping they would make the product. “Everybody said you’re crazy… That stuff’s way too hard to work with,” Souza said.
That’s why Souza set out and built his own distillery, right there on the family farm in Atwater. Souza brought his long-time employee, Sharon Ambrosia from Las Vegas, with him. Ambrosia enjoyed working for Souza and took a leap of faith in helping him get his new business established.
“The first trip I ever made to Atwater was in my U-Haul trailer,” Ambrosia said.
One of the most difficult tasks of daily operations at Sweet Potato Spirits is keeping up with both federal and state regulations for alcoholic beverages. All alcohol produced and sold must be carefully recorded and reported. New product launches must wait for federal label approvals. Souza is currently waiting for the approval of two new product labels, Corbin vodka and Corbin Cash sweet potato whiskey.
Souza has been aging whiskey for over two years now and is anxious to launch another product. There are other new products on the horizon, as the company plans to someday launch a 100 percent almond-based amaretto (from Souza’s own almond trees) and a sweet potato beer.
Souza will be showcasing his product this weekend at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America 70th Annual Convention and Exposition in Orlando, Fla.
The sweet potato vodka production is still very much tied to the Souza family’s deep agricultural roots and is environmentally friendly. Water from the processing is reused. Nutrients and vitamins in the skin are used as livestock feed and crop fertilizers. David Souza has found a way to give his family legacy in agriculture a little more kick!