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Producing Excellence

David Souza

Atwater, CA

Sweet Potato Spirits

Products: Sweet potatoes, almonds, sweet potato vodka

Size of Operation: 1,050 acres

In Business Since: 1976

Farm Credit Partner: Yosemite Farm Credit

Learn more about Corbin Vodka on YouTube

Adding value to their commodity crops enables farmers and ranchers to increase their profitability, something fifth generation farmer David Souza, III, has proven by using a portion of his family’s sweet potatoes to introduce an award-winning vodka.

For decades, the Souza family has been raising sweet potatoes on their central California farm, expanding their acreage over time with financing from Yosemite Farm Credit. Today, David works with his father and their partners to farm 700 acres of sweet potatoes and another 350 acres of almonds, a crop added over time to increase diversification.

Approximately 75% of their sweet potatoes are sold to grocery retailers for consumer purchase, with 25% sold as seed potatoes to growers across the country, an effort the Souza’s undertook more recently.“There aren’t any seed companies for sweet potatoes in the U.S., so we started working with the university to help develop seed potatoes that are resistant to viruses and deliver more production,” says David, Jr. After starting in a small greenhouse, they now grow 800,000 plants a year.“People just started calling us for more and more.”

Their latest venture, spearheaded by David, III, has been distilling sweet potato vodka.“I bought a book from the Internet, imported a still from Canada and started experimenting in my garage,” David says.The process involves multiple steps: aging the potatoes for optimal sugar level; grinding and boiling the potatoes to release the sugars; fermentation to turn the sugars to alcohol; distillation to separate out the alcohol; and finally filtration to obtain the desired alcohol level, or “proof.”

After eighteen months of effort, David was satisfied with his recipe. “We did tastings, and people thought it was really smooth.” David uses only some of the eight varieties of sweet potatoes the family grows – the specific varieties remain a trade secret – using 10 to 15 pounds of potatoes to make a gallon of spirit.

His next step was expanding production to support commercial sales, which he did by converting the farm’s shop and installing a larger distilling system. Corbin Vodka, named for David’s son, was launched in 2011 and enjoyed almost immediate success, winning a Double Gold award in the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco.“Sales started rolling in after that,” David says, but he still needed to find a major distributor willing to take him on.

He found that distributor in mid-2013 and Corbin Vodka is now poised for national distribution, building on the distinction of being the country’s only Estate Grown sweet potato vodka “with complete control over the product from farm to bar top.”

Download a PDF version of this story here.