California farmer aims to turn sweet potatoes into vodka gold

The only commercially distributed sweet potato vodka in the world is made in Atwater.

OK, before you get upset, yes, the Japanese spirit sochu is sometimes made from sweet potatoes. But David Souza's High Roller Vodka is something new.

Souza makes his vodka in small batches at a micro-distillery he assembled in his family's garage from a secret recipe that includes a blend of four types of sweet potatoes. The spuds are always fresh, as he and his family live and work on more than 1,000 acres of farmland.

"I've always farmed," said the 36-year-old Atwater native. "I've been on the farm since I was 7 years old. I never left it. But I want to take it to the next level, and this is my way. Because I'm a fourth-generation farmer. And every generation we've just gotten bigger and bigger. To me this is the next step. And hopefully my son can take it over."

When Souza started developing his vodka in 2007, he didn't have any idea what he was doing. He said he just bought a book on the Internet and started making one bottle at a time. After several years of research and working with a laboratory in Fresno, Souza said he came up with a concoction that was both tasty and economically viable.

"When you start with a potato, a wheat, a rye, a barley, you have a starch," he said. "You have to take that starch and turn it into a sugar. So what you do is you add enzymes. But sweet potatoes have very little starch and very little sugar. So it's a pain in the butt. Now I know why nobody uses sweet potatoes to make alcohol, because it's a pain."

When Souza started his vodka project, he had just returned from Los Vegas where he had owned a restaurant. Originally, he thought he could use his connections in Sin City to put his vodka on the top shelves of several popular nightclubs.

In March of last year, Souza presented his vodka at a competition in Las Vegas. There one of the tasters recommended he enter the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco.

"This guy comes up to me and he's like, 'I'm telling you, I'm a vodka drinker and this is the best vodka I've ever had,' " Souza recalled. " 'It beats out Ultimat, Ciroc -- all of those. You're the best vodka here.' And we're in the niche category. We've got this little tiny booth compared to all these big guys."

The only problem was that the deadline for entry was the next day. Souza ended up entering on a whim and paying more than $500 in entry fees and shipping costs to get his bottles to the judges on time.

Souza was so naïve about the prestigious competition that he and a friend tried to go to the Neko Hotel where the private tasting was being held.

"I tried to walk in, thinking we're going to check out all these different spirits, because there are over 1,200 spirits that enter from all over the world," he said. "So we walk up there and the guy's all, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. What are you doing?' "

Souza can laugh at that now, especially since his High Roller Vodka was one of six vodkas out of 400 to take home a Double Gold prize.

"The only way to get a double gold is all 33 judges have to give you a gold medal on the blind tasting," he said. "So we were pretty stoked. When the judges got done, we had six of them contact us and say, 'That was the best vodka. Where can I buy it?' I'm, like, we're not even on the market yet."

Even then Souza admits he didn't understand the gravity of the award.

After the news got out about the competition, distributors contacted him from Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Dubai.

High Roller Vodka is available in California and Florida or at sweetpotatovodka.com. After next month, the vodka will be available in Arizona, Tennessee, Nebraska and Las Vegas.

Souza said he's excited for the future but he admits he's just getting started. His family has been supportive, but he said they don't hesitate to remind him how much he has at stake.

"This is a tough business," he said. "My total investment so far is about half a million. And yeah, I'm nervous. I need to make that back. I have a family to feed. But I know the long haul of it is that we have a great product."

To read more, visit www.mercedsunstar.com.