How Would You Like Your Sorghum? On the Rocks

Humble beginnings, a dash of creativity and a lot of hard work have taken this Kansas native and former coffee shop owner to the creator of a popular sorghum vodka. Located in the heart of the largest sorghum producing state in the nation, Ornery Brother Distillery is producing spirits popular with locals and out-of-towners alike.

Written by: Matthew Winterholler

In Kansas, sorghum is sparking creativity. A state-native is creating a vodka made entirely from sorghum and marketed as milo vodka, a fitting spirit from the largest sorghum producing state in the country.

Tim Kyle is an unlikely character to be the creator of a vodka sourced from sorghum. He was not always involved in alcohol production. Just a few years ago, in fact, Kyle was a carpenter and owner of a coffee shop in Greensburg, Kansas.

After a tornado hit the town in 2007, residents struggled to create ideas to restore the town’s economy and culture.

“I just looked around and was like, ‘Okay, what can we make with what we have that we can sell other places?’” Kyle said. “One of the things that we have an absolute abundance of is sorghum grain.”

From that day forward, Kyle has never looked back, creating a distillery which would later become known as Ornery Brother Distilling. The curious name was formed when his two sons were fighting in the backseat of the car.

Without any education in fermentation or distillation, Kyle set out on a mission to create a product wholly sourced in Kansas. What most would consider an undoable task, Kyle energetically took head-on.

“I went and got a meeting with Kansas State University’s head of fermentation and distillation,” Kyle said. “I went to meet with him just to go over the basics.”

After getting the basics from the researcher, Kyle continued his quest with his own research.

“The more I researched it, the more I got to looking at using milo, and the more I just fell in love with it,” Kyle said. “I mean, it’s just a wonderfully underutilized, marvelous grain.”

“The more I researched it, the more I got to looking at using milo, and the more I just fell in love with it,” Kyle said. “I mean, it’s just a wonderfully underutilized, marvelous grain.”

Through his research, Kyle found many benefits to using sorghum grain to produce alcohol. The big one? It does not contain tannins or sulfites.

“Tannins and sulfites are what give liquor its harsh flavor,” Kyle said. “When someone talks about how many times they distilled it and how many times they filtered it, those processes are specifically designed to target and remove tannins and sulfites.”

Kyle said starting with a cereal grain without tannins and sulfites leads to a really smooth liquor in the end with little work involved.

His instant love for the grain ended up being a blessing in disguise, allowing him to take the unique challenges with stride, Kyle said.

Not only did the distillation process present challenges, so too did juggling the many tasks of the business. Ornery Brother Distilling is a small operation, only using Kyle’s and his wife’s expertise. The couple does everything from the distillation to the accounting to the janitorial work—all while Kyle continues his carpentry job.

“If you weren’t passionate about it, you’d have given up a long time before you got to the finish line,” Kyle said. “It took me almost two years to figure out how to make a good western-style alcohol.”

Kyle worked at creating the final product for two years. Challenges popped up throughout the process, but the largest of those challenges was figuring out how to rid the alcohol of an undesirable flavor that comes from the distilling process.

The grain may not have tannins or sulfites, but the oils within milo can create undesirable flavors that can’t be removed through distillation alone and require additional processing. Many large alcohol companies have the process down to a science, but Kyle, a first-timer learning the ropes, had to go through a lot of trial and error to learn how to create a desirable taste profile for sorghum vodka.

“Figuring out what was causing that flavor and then the multiple steps it required to remove the flavor was definitely what took two years,” Kyle said.

Kyle had to rely solely on his own ability to problem solve from what he knew.

“It’s not like there’s a YouTube video on how to do this,” Kyle said.

The chemical properties of the grain alone were unique, he said, but those challenges of the process eventually led to a product he is proud of.

“Milo is a lot of work to get it neutral,” Kyle said. “One of my favorite things about it is the unique flavor that mine has versus a wheat-based vodka. I understand I’m a bit biased, but mine is one of the few vodkas I would just drink on ice.”

The hard work Kyle and his wife invested into Ornery Brother Distilling ended up paying off big time, leading to a product that was well received by many people within the nation’s largest sorghum producing state.

“There for about 4-5 months I could not hardly keep up with demand,” Kyle said. “That makes a fella feel good.”

Not only has he created a unique vodka because of the cereal grain he chose to use, but it is also unique because it is the only alcohol made out of 100 percent milo, sourced from ADM’s supply of Kansas sorghum, Kyle said.

Other alcoholic beverages around the world utilize sorghum, but they also utilize other grains or added sugar.

“My mash build is milo flour, water, enzymes and yeast,” Kyle said. “I know there’s a guy in Little Rock that makes a whiskey, but it’s a traditional mash build. You know, 50 pounds of grain for 50 pounds of sugar. Mine is 100 percent grain.”

Kyle’s Kansas-sourced product only sells in Kansas right now, but he has hopes to expand into other markets and surrounding states to offer his product to more sorghum-producing areas.

“The other thing that helps fuel the expansion is I’m working on a whiskey right now and a few other products,” Kyle said. “Organically flavored vodka and gin and a few other basic products just to help make us more desirable in those larger markets.”

With these new ideas in his pocket, Kyle foresees a bright future for himself and other craft distillers.

“Craft distilling has really only gotten started in the last 10 years, and I think we’re a long way from seeing the peak of craft distilling,” Kyle said. “The amount of creativity that is now starting to show up in craft distilling is really exciting.”

With Kyle’s craft distillery just 28 short minutes away from Greensburg—the place where it all started—his creativity continues to benefit the very place that drove the original idea by drawing attention to the small community and supporting local farmers through the purchase of their grain. Those benefits will hopefully persist for many years to come.