Booze on the Bayou
New Orleans is the birthplace of the iconic cocktail known as the Hurricane, and the city has a rich history of appreciating a good mixed drink. Revelers pile into the streets of the French Quarter every night carrying brightly colored plastic glasses filled with libations based on a range of spirits, from rum to vodka to whiskey. Despite having a cocktail culture and an abundance of the ingredients needed to make good liquor, until about a year ago there was only one distillery operating in South Louisiana. Today, the Bayou State boasts seven working distilleries.
Louisiana’s micro-distillery boom follows a nationwide trend. According to the American Distilling Institute, an organization that promotes the craft distillery industry, in the past ten years the number of micro-distilleries in the U.S. has risen from sixty-nine to over four hundred. Sizes and production vary, but a well working micro-distillery might take a year to produce the volume of rum a giant like Bacardi produces in less than a day.
There are two major forces behind the explosion in the industry. Savvy consumers have forced the market to supply more choices and better quality. “Foodies are extending their interests into beverages. People are looking at the cocktail industry as another way to be creative. They want to make drinkable art,” said Laura McMillian, assistant director of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. Second is the global rise of the craft beer movement. “Micro-distilleries have ridden on the coattails of the craft beer movement,” said Jason Coleman, director of marketing for Old New Orleans Rum. When smaller breweries became profitable, entrepreneurs and potential investors took note and extended themselves into the distilling industry.
Last year Louisiana Senate Bill 64 passed, giving distillers the right to sell small amounts of product directly to consumers. This law provides communities an opportunity to become involved with their local distillers while also potentially creating a new avenue for tourism. The Louisiana Spirits Distillery in Lacassine, for instance, is scheduled to complete its expansive facility in early July. After touring and tasting, guests will be able to stroll out with a bottle of Bayou Rum in hand. Trey Litel, co-founder of Louisiana Spirits, said he could not envision his distillery without a retail store. “Selling from our visitors center was paramount to our business,” he explained.
While entrepreneurs from all walks of life have tackled distilling, they share a camaraderie geared to helping the industry succeed as a whole. Coleman isn’t worried about competition; “A rising tide floats all ships,” he quipped. “Each one of these distilleries has their own spin on rum.” While the magnitude of the craft distillery movement in Louisiana has yet to be determined, two things are certain: this isn’t your Pappy’s moonshine or Prohibition-era bathtub gin.
The Granddaddy: Celebration Distillation, Old New Orleans Rum
Celebration Distillation, home of Old New Orleans Rum (ONO), was founded by artist James Michalopoulos in 1995. While on a trip to Switzerland, he fell in love with the idea of opening a distillery after visiting with a friend who distilled her own spirits from herbs growing in her backyard. In 1999 after about five years of vigorous experimentation, Old New Orleans was ready to sell its Crystal Rum, and Michalopoulos had succeeded in bringing rum production back to Louisiana. Today, Old New Orleans boasts distribution points as far away as New York and Chicago.
Not only was Crystal Rum its first commercial endeavor, the product also serves as the basis for all of its other rums. It is clear and slightly sweet with a hint of vanilla. ONO’s Amber Rum is aged for three years in charred oak barrels. It has a deeper taste, but still keeps its smoothness. Jason Coleman, director of marketing for ONO is especially proud of the Cajun Spice Rum. “It is infused with real spices.” he said, “We never use syrups for flavoring. This gives the rum a complex, yet light taste.” (Baron Samedi cocktail recipe...)
The showstopper at the distillery is their 10 Year Special Edition. It holds a special place in Michalopoulos’ heart. It was being aged in oak barrels when Hurricane Katrina hit. While some of the distillery’s inventory was lost in the storm, their special creation survived. It is so rare it is not sold in stores, but it can be purchased at the distillery.
The distillery’s latest creation has arrived just in time for summer. Gingeroo is a pre-made craft cocktail. Crystal rum, ginger juice, cane sugar, and carbonation is packaged in 750ml bottles. “In the past, prepackaged cocktails have been looked upon as second-rate, overly sweet artificial concoctions,” said Coleman, “Gingeroo aims to change these opinions.”
Big Easy Up and Comers: Atelier Vie, Buck 25 Vodka and Toulouse Red Absinthe Rouge
Artist and musician Jedd Haas dreamed about opening a distillery for years. He had been fascinated with mass production following an apprenticeship in electronics manufacturing years ago. An abundance of government red tape almost killed his longstanding dream of opening a distillery in New Orleans. But after two years of work, Haas’ distillery, Atelier Vie, debuted its first product in September: Buck 25 Vodka. Buck 25 is a 125-proof product designed as an infusion vodka by bartenders and chefs. The high proof enables bartenders to add flavors to the vodka without diluting it too much.
In December, Atelier Vie was able to release its signature spirit, Toulouse Red, a red absinthe distilled in the traditional style using wormwood, fennel, and anise, all of which are sourced from local Louisiana growers. “It is very versatile. It is colored with red hibiscus flowers and has a candy-like taste with notes of liquorish,” said Haas. (The Toulouse cocktail recipe...)
Toulouse Red can be found around Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Haas says he is looking forward to many years and more Atelier Vie products.
Soc Au Lait Distillerie, Seersucker Vodka
Back in 2009, Ian Nygren and Jeff Rogers dreamed of opening a distillery that would provide New Orleans with a locally made, top shelf vodka. After a lengthy battle with the city’s planning commission, all of their permits are finally in place, and the final renovations are being made to an old warehouse at Claiborne Avenue and Bienville Street. By the end of summer, their efforts will come to fruition when Seersucker Vodka hits the shelves. When asked about the name Seersucker, Nygren said, “To me, Seersucker says quality Southern culture, and we are creating a quality vodka for the people of New Orleans.” Eventually Soc Au Lait wants to create flavored vodkas that coordinate with the various festivals and holidays that are unique to South Louisiana.
Cajun Spirits Distillery, Crescent Vodka and Tresillo Rum
Gus Haik, founder of Cajun Spirits Distillery, was born and raised in New Orleans; but after graduating from Ben Franklin High School both duty and wanderlust called. He departed his native city for ten years to join the Navy as an engineer and learned how to turn seawater into drinking water for thirsty sailors. After these years at sea, Haik returned to New Orleans and began working for Celebration Distillery where he fell in love with the process of distilling spirits. In 2010, he founded his own company, Cajun Spirits.
His Poydras Street distillery in the 3rd Ward will officially open in September. Haik purchases a special type of sugarcane straight from the grower. He plans on using high quality Louisiana sugarcane to produce both Crescent Vodka and Tresillo Rum.
Avery and Janet Glasser’s journey to move Bittermens Bitters to metro New Orleans has spanned three cities. After stops in San Francisco, New York, and Boston, the couple made the decision to move their distillery to Elmwood Park Boulevard about a year ago because they said New Orleans was a more affordable, business-friendly environment with an active port. Their goal was to create small batch bitters with innovative flavors and to help revive the rich cocktail history of the Crescent City. In January, the Glassers started producing the first bitters locally since the Sazerac Company uprooted Peychaud’s Bitters to Kentucky ages ago.
Their Xocolatl Mole Bitters are Bittermens' original creation and their best seller. The secret recipe consists of a combination of cacao, cinnamon, and spices. They were originally designed to be paired with tequila, but the Glassers say they can be mixed with almost any brown liquor to add a bit of flavor.
With their line of bitters doing so well, producing a line of liqueurs was a natural next step. Their New Orleans Coffee Liqueur pays homage to their new home. It is a blend of coffee, organic chicory root, cacao nibs, vanilla, and candi syrup. The result is a complex coffee liquor that, when substituted for Kahlua, makes a White Russian worthy of The Big Lebowski. (Beignet & Coffee cocktail recipe...)
The Glassers' latest endeavor was to found an import operation they have coined Vendetta Spirits. The goal is to import small batch liquors and syrups from around the world. Janet Glasser sees Vendetta as a pioneer in the “nano-importing” industry. Basically Vendetta watches out for the little guys and gives them an opportunity to distribute in the U.S. Their most recent import hails from the U.K. and is a dry gin based on a classic 1800s recipe called Jensen’s Bermondsey Gin.
Acadiana Entrepreneurs: Rank Wildcat, Sweet Crude Rum
For about a year now, a handmade still named Lulu has been the lady in David Meaux’s and Cole LeBlanc’s lives on weekends and holidays. The etymology of Rank Wildcat has its roots in Meaux’s and LeBlanc’s time in the oil industry. It’s an industry term for a long shot oil well.
For now, these two petroleum land men have kept their day jobs but devote most of their time off to cranking out their premium rum called Sweet Crude. Meaux and LeBlanc have done everything from building Lulu, named after a pot-bellied pig, to hand dipping the top of each bottle of Sweet Crude in hot wax.
When asked what sets Sweet Crude apart from other rums, Meaux said, “We do not use blackstrap molasses in our fermentations. It creates a harsh distillate that we found unpalatable. Our quest was to create a wash that would be as close in composition to natural sugar cane juice as possible.” Rank Wildcat only uses premium cane sugar and molasses from the M.A. Patout & Son Sugar Mill in Jeanerette—the oldest and largest family run sugar mill in Louisiana. Right now, Rank Wildcat is cranking out about forty cases of rum a month and barely keeping up with demand; still, they plan to continue growing.
Meaux said the best compliment he gets is when he turns skeptics around. “At first, people are hesitant to try it. But after their first taste, their face lights up, and they will make their friend try a sip,” he said. “We make a damn good product.”
By the end of the year, Rank Wildcat hopes to have Black Crude, their rum aged in a twelve-year-old bourbon barrel, on shelves in Acadiana.
Louisiana Spirits LLC, Bayou Rum
After years of talking, Trey and Tim Litel along with longtime friend Skip Cortes decided to take the plunge into the rum business. Their three-year journey will pay off when Bayou Rum rolls into stores the first week of July. Trey Litel says it is their historical “Sugar House” recipe that they have updated to incorporate modern distilling methods that makes their rum so special. Only the best raw, unrefined sugar and molasses are used. This helps to create a smoother rum that mixes well or is able to stand alone. Bayou Rum will be available in two varieties: Bayou Silver Rum and Spiced Bayou Rum. (Rum Milk Punch recipe...)
Around Memorial Day weekend the company held its Inaugural Toast party at L’Auberge Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles. “Managing our own expectations has been the hardest part,” said Trey Litel. “But good things take time, and we have a very good thing.”
Louisiana Spirits is located off I-10 at Lacassine. A visitors center will open early this month, offering tours, a tasting room, and a gift shop that sells their rum as well as souvenirs. “We are very proud of it. It is truly a tourist destination,” Trey Litel said proudly.
Donner-Peltier Distillers, Oryza Vodka & Gin and Rougaroux Rum
Jennifer Peltier never thought she and her husband, Dr. Henry Peltier, would be co-owners of a distillery. Henry Peltier’s family had been involved in the Louisiana sugar industry for over seventy-five years. But no one had ever said, “Look at all the sugarcane. Why hasn’t anyone made rum?” until the Peltiers were vacationing with Dr. Tom and Beth Donner. Tom Donner, also a Louisiana native, had grown up around the cane fields and constantly wondered why people weren’t turning the sugarcane into rum. Ideas were exchanged, partnerships formed, a three thousand liter copper still was imported from Germany, and the Donner-Peltier Distillery opened in November.
Their first offering was a vodka made with long grain Louisiana rice from Crowley. They called it “Oryza,” which means ‘rice’ in Latin. “It is very smooth with a subtle sweet taste and a creamy finish,” said Jennifer Peltier, “It is a neutral spirit with character.” (Oryza Cooler recipe...)
Shortly after Christmas, the myth of the Cajun monster known as the Rougaroux was reborn when the distillery launched its Sugarshine Rougaroux, a clear 101 proof “rum moonshine” with a bold, but sweet, taste. The judges at the San Francisco World Spirits competition didn’t fear the Cajun werewolf; they awarded Sugarshine a Double Gold Medal earlier this year. The Rougaroux family has now grown to include Rougaroux Full Moon Dark Rum and Rougaroux 13 Pennies, a praline-flavored rum. Their latest release is Oryza Gin—a vodka-based gin infused with botanicals and satsuma.
The distillery hopes to debut Louisiana’s first whiskey since Prohibition sometime around Christmas. LA-1 is a combination of rye, corn, rice, and chocolate malt and is named after the longest highway in Louisiana.
It is unclear how many more Louisianans will throw their hats into the spirits industry ring, but the future looks bright for craft distilling in the Pelican State. Hopefully with some hard work, a profitable industry that promotes both Louisiana products and tourism can be established. “I would like to see Louisiana looked at as the American capitol of rum” Coleman said. “It could come into its own like the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky.”
Details. Details. Details.
Atelier Vie Buck 25 Vodka and Toulouse Red Absinthe Rouge ateliervie.com Bittermens Bitters Bitters bittermens.com Cajun Spirits Distillery cajunspirits.com Celebration Distillation Old New Orleans Rum oldneworleansrum.com Donner-Peltier Distillers Oryza Vodka & Gin; Rougaroux Rum dp-distillers.com Louisiana Spirits LLC Bayou Rum bayourum.com Rank Wildcat Sweet Crude Rum rankwildcat.com Soc Au Lait Distillerie Seersucker Vodka neworleansvodkas.com