The heirloom sugarcane that will be grown on Sapelo Island has already drawn significant interest in high culinary circles. The historical heritage of the cane, along with its potential for an exotic and unique flavor, will enhance its salability across South Carolina and the Southeast.
South Carolina food historian David Shields, who was the originator of the Sapelo project, says the sugarcane will back up its historical value with special and unique flavors.
“For ages, cane sugar has been marketed as a bulk commodity, or in terms of the degree of refinement in its processing,” says Shields, author of Southern Provisions. “But like every other food plant on this planet, different varieties have different tastes and different culinary properties. Sapelo Island is growing not just one but a dozen of the most important historic cane varieties, which will create a range of varietal tastes that can be compared and appreciated for their distinct virtues.”
Clemson geneticist Stephen Kresovich says the goal of the project is to establish a productive sugarcane industry on Sapelo for the benefit of its people. “Upscale restaurants in Charleston, Savannah and Atlanta are showing interest, so the market is already there.”
Linton Hopkins, a renowned Georgia chef who owns several opulent restaurants in the Southeast, plans to become one of the cane’s first customers.
“The beautiful thing about Doc Bill, David Shields and their band of outliers is the idea of continuing to research ways to find nuance and distinction in the foods that define us as Southerners,” Hopkins says. “Good food and good restaurants should give you a sense of time and place, and I like knowing the people who grow and craft the ingredients I use. When I add sugar to a dish, it’s not just going to be granulated sugar off the shelf. It’s going to be Sapelo sugar.”
Another customer-in-waiting is Scott Blackwell, co-owner of High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston.
“The flavor of fresh cane juice is so much more tropical and will give the taster much more sense about the place and Terroir,” says Blackwell, who will use the sugar cane juice to make a low-country take on Rhum Agricole. “Fresh juice has a green-banana and grassy flavor that when fermented will have a crazy aroma that will make a really interesting final spirit. All the additional microorganisms and wild yeasts will add so much more to the complexity and depth.”