A Look At Sugarbeet, Sugarcane’s Increasingly Popular Roles In American Spirits

Raise a glass to toast sugar

Published online: Aug 08, 2023 Feature Courtney Gaine, President & CEO, The Sugar Association
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Alcohol has played an important social and economic role in people’s lives since 6,000 BC, according to evidence of wine production discovered in the Caucasus region.

Sugar has been used in alcohol production ever since. Europe has a long history of making vodka from beet sugar and rum has been made with both sugarcane juice and molasses for hundreds of years. However, vodka made from sugarcane juice, and spirits made from beet sugar are relatively new to the United States. A handful of distilleries throughout the United States are now making these products, and say these innovative new beverages are here to stay.

“Sugarbeet vodka is a best kept secret,” said Weldon Spangler of Minneapolis, MN.

Spangler, along with his wife Amy and son Wayne, own and operate BĒT vodka (pronounced “beet”) and use beet sugar produced in the Red River Valley region of Minnesota and North Dakota

Wayne Spangler originally moved to Minnesota from Washington state in 2011 to attend law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and ended up becoming a permanent resident of Minnesota.

“We then moved to the Twin Cities four years ago. Wayne is our only child and we all always wanted to have a small business together,” said Amy. “BĒT Vodka was created in 2016 and was the first Midwest vodka brand made entirely from sugarbeets. The founders were selling the company, and we purchased it in November 2022. My father was born in Polk County, MN, and his parents were Swedish immigrants who lived and worked on a sugarbeet farm. It felt like coming full circle and returning home to our roots.” 

The family fell in love with the distinctive flavor of BĒT vodka, according to Weldon. 

“I had previously worked for Starbucks and spent a lot of time in the coffee business. Vodkas differ in taste, just like coffee,” he said. “Sugarbeet vodka is smooth and has a ‘mouth feel.’ The flavor is a bit peppery with a hint of vanilla as it fades away.” 

Amy is a retired teacher, Weldon is a businessperson, and Wayne is a lawyer. 

“We have no distilling experience, although we are learning every day,” said Amy. “We own the recipe and product, and our distilling is done by Paul Werni at 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, WI. Paul and his team distill our vodka a few times a year.” 

Sugarbeet vodka is very new in the U.S., according to Werni.

“The craze of vodka began in the early 2000s and started with importers in Minnesota,” he said. “Because alcohol is made by fermenting sugar, sugarcane and sugarbeet crops are the easy ingredients to convert into alcohol.”

Werni was a stay-at-home dad from Minnesota who wanted to do something creative on a manufacturing level. 

“I got my federal permit in 2007. There were only about 50 distilleries in the country that could make vodka at that time, and not all of them were. There was nothing in the Midwest. When I started, I couldn’t even get literature on distilling and existing big distillers didn’t want to share their knowledge. I learned by asking a lot of questions and getting information from chemistry professors,” he said. “Today there are 3,000 American distilleries, many of which make vodka. Most of the new distilleries made vodka because it was a hot category and did not require aging so you could sell it right away to make money. There are also training programs for distillers now. My head distiller trained in Scotland.”

Making sugarbeet vodka takes close to a month, according to Werni.

“There are two weeks of fermentation and then three days of distillation, filtration and blending. Making vodka with beet sugar is like making a really pure rum. There are not a lot of nutrients in the fermentations, which are long and slow,” he said. “Making whiskey is about retaining impurities, but making vodka is about removing them. BET vodka is tripled distilled, which means impurities are removed in stages. It takes a couple of distillations to get to the desired purity level and get a good yield.” 

In Denver, CO, Tim Kelly and his business partner Kim Veiga are making vodka out of organic sugarcane juice. Their company is called Felene Vodka (pronounced “felony”) and they describe their product as being “criminally smooth.” 

“Vodka is the most widely consumed spirit worldwide, as well as in the U.S., so it’s been very popular for decades. That said, it has had a reputation for being all punishment and no reward from a taste profile. Until 2021, vodka was legally classified as ‘tasteless, odorless and without character,’ by the U.S. government,” Kelly said. “Sugarcane-based vodka is much smoother than people anticipate. It’s quite fun watching their reactions when they try it. In many cases, people can be seen actually bracing for the unpleasant experience before tasting the vodka. It is a lot of fun to see them relieved after tasting Felene, and we convert almost 70 percent of the people who sample our product into buyers.”

Kelly is working to show consumers firsthand that not all vodkas are created equal. 

“Traditionally, a lot of people think all vodka is the same and so a lot of people will go ‘down-market’ and buy very inexpensive vodka. Like many consumable products, you get what you pay for. Cheap, grain-based vodka can be very astringent to the point it is difficult to tolerate,” he said. “A lot of younger people will go down this path and so vodka often gets a bad reputation for being unsavory and causing “day-after distress,” also known as nasty hangovers. That's not the reality of sugarcane-based vodka.”

Kelly sources organic sugarcane juice and has it shipped to the distillery.

“Sugarcane is arguably a superior source of agricultural base for vodka-making. It has a high enough concentration of readily accessible sugars for fermentation. It is much easier than other crops to ferment and distill and does not require the same type of processing as starch-based products. It is more expensive to source, but the result is a cleaner fermentation, a simpler distillation process and a much smoother finished product,” Kelly said. “The biggest challenge is getting people to taste it and understand that sugarcane vodka does not contain any sugar because there is no residual sugar after fermentation.” 

Very few people drink grain-based vodka straight for the taste, but Kelly says that changes with sugarcane-based vodka.

“Sugarcane has a pleasant aroma and a smoothness marked by a surprising absence of alcohol burn with top notes of sweetness consistent with the aroma,” he said. “So that’s why we encourage people to ‘taste vodka again for the first time.’”

In addition to tasting great, Felene Vodka is also affordable.

“Felene was not the first distillery to make sugarcane vodka, but we are one of the first to market it at a mainstream pricing model while offering the highest quality available,” Kelly said. “Prior to Felene, one national brand was selling at $30 for a 750ml bottle. It was more of a novelty product. Felene retails at about $19.99 and is marketed as a high-quality vodka.” 

Sugarcane has historically been associated with rum, but Alan Edmondson of WildRye Distilling in Bozeman, MT, is putting a new spin on an old favorite. His Ramsdell’s Parrot Silver “Rum” is an un-aged sugar spirit made from beet sugar, meaning that it has never been in any sort of barrel and has the same flavors as when it came off the still.

“WildRye Distilling, LLC was started in 2014 with the simple goal of sharing our passion for innovative craft spirits. The Sugar Beet ‘Rum’ was one of our first products,” said Edmondson. “When we first opened, our sweet corn Bourbon (“Five Drops”) was the flagship specialty, but that takes time to age,” said Edmondson. “We decided to use something Montana has a lot of—sugarbeets—to produce ‘rum.’ The U.S. government has designated categories for how alcohol can be labeled, based on initial fermentation. Under these rules, rum must be made from cane sugar to have the rum label. Our product is technically a “Beet Sugar Distilled Spirit Specialty,” so we cannot call it ‘rum.’”

Since WildRye Distilling’s ‘rum’ beverage cannot be sold as rum, there are no similar products on the market. 

“We started Wildrye to make spirits that are different from what is out there,” Edmondson said. "The very essence of craft lies in the ability of small, agile producers to create innovative spirits having distinctive flavors and aromas using new techniques.”

Although Edmondson’s sugarbeet ‘rum’ is not considered rum according to government labeling requirements, the process for making it is the same as rum made from sugarcane. 

“Most rum produced around the world is made the same way we do it. It is an age-old process of just dissolving sugar into water and letting the yeast do the work. After measuring out the sugar, you add it to 160-degree F water,” he said. “For us, a standard batch is about 900 pounds of sugar to produce 792 gallons of ferment. We add sugarcane molasses and heat to a boil under constant agitation until all sugar has been dissolved. The mixture is cooled through a heat exchanger and moved into one of our 1,100-gallon fermenters, where we add yeast and nutrients.”

The fermentation process takes three weeks to a month to complete, and the resulting sugar wine is pumped into a 500-gallon hybrid pot column still and put through what is known as a ‘strip run.’ After that, the liquid goes through the Spirit run, where the alcohol is sorted into three parts.

“This is where the art comes into distilling. These parts are the ‘heads,’ ‘hearts,’ and ‘tails.’ The ‘heads’ are the hot, nasal burn alcohols. Think nail polish remover,” Edmondson said. “The ‘hearts’ are the part you want because they are smooth, pure ethanol. The ‘tails’ are the end of the run and can be described as having an oily smell and taste. My job as the distiller is to use my palate to separate out these components so that our ‘rum’ (and all other products) are only the ‘hearts’.” 

The biggest challenges in distilling are managing time and working efficiently, according to Edmondson.

“When you are constantly moving liquids around and having to manage equipment use times, it becomes a puzzle,” he said. “Distillation takes time, and you cannot force it to move faster, so being able to have multiple processes running simultaneously and keeping a close eye on them all is the biggest struggle. In general, though, most days are good, and I love being a distiller.”

WildRye Distilling’s products are more than just beverages.

“We are here to do something innovative and to create authentic spirits that not only taste good but make you think about people, place, history and passion. We do that with new and re-imagined recipes and production methods inspired by our local Montana agricultural heritage,” said Edmondson. “Distillers and brewers have always provided, and continue to provide, a direct value-add to local agriculture. We take agricultural products that would traditionally need to be shipped out of state and use them locally to produce value-added manufactured products. And even in an age-old traditional industry there is still room for innovation and creation of new products in a way that gives respect to the hard work and innovation of those that have come before.”

Sugar Beet spirits are unique way to connect with the history of Colorado, according to Max Vogelman of Stoneyard Distillery in Dotsero.

“Most people who live here don’t know the impact agriculture has on the state. The sugarbeet spirits get people’s attention,” he said.

Home distilling started as a hobby for Vogelman, who grew up near Dotsero.

“I had friends who were making beer and I was curious about how it was made. I started making alcohol out of sugar, although I didn’t think much of where the sugar came from,” he said. “It was probably beet sugar and I just didn’t know it.” 

Vogelman and his business partner Jim Benson started Stoneyard Distillery in 2014, with the goal of creating a unique product with local ingredients. 

“There is not really a label for what we make. It’s not a rum or a vodka, so it’s just called ‘specialty spirits,’ said Vogelman. “The legal definition of vodka is ‘neutral spirit.’ All the flavor has been stripped away. Vodka is distilled up to 95 percent alcohol. Our spirits are distilled to 92 percent, in order to keep the flavor.”

Stoneyard Distilling has tasting rooms at both its Glenwood and Dotsero locations, and make a wide range of spirits including gin and bitters. 

“The spirit we make from beet sugar comes out of the still at 176 proof, and this forms the base for everything we make here,” said Vogelman. “We also make products by aging it.” 

Stoneyard’s most popular product is their Horchata spiced alcohol spirit, flavored by directly infusing Stoneyard Sugar Beet Spirits with real cinnamon, vanilla, coconut and cocoa. 

“It’s a 35 percent spirit in final form and is very versatile,” Vogelman said. “It can be mixed with a lot of things like pineapple juice and hot chocolate, and we also sell it as a canned cocktail.”

Stoneyard’s spirits are unique in the alcoholic beverage industry.

“We’re different, and the industry is so used to typical forms of alcohol that our sugarbeet spirits threw them for a loop,” Vogelman said. “Some people are open-minded and some aren’t, and it was an uphill battle in the beginning to find a niche.”

Educating people about sugarbeets and sugarcane is a daily conversation for all the distillers. 

“There is a lot of confusion about what a sugar beet is, even with liquor store owners,” said Amy Spangler at BET Vodka. “People often think mostly of potatoes when they think of vodka, and don’t understand what sugar they are eating.”

Raising awareness and sharing the story of sugarbeets and sugarcane is as much of the distilling process as producing alcoholic beverages, and the distillers believe the high quality of the products speak for themselves.

“The challenge is to get people to try it, but when they do, they are surprised by how good it is,” Vogelman said.