A Louisiana History of Rum: Part I

The great and powerful nations of the world in the 1600s and 1700s were all about claiming new territories and expanding their influences, but the bottom line for all the exploring and conquering was The Bottom Line.

For monarchies, sending out expeditions, sinking swords and crosses into new land, and “convincing” native tribes who were there first that their homeland was no longer of any use to them, was expensive and fraught with failures. Not to mention battles and much distrust.

So in the end, for European monarchs and land-grabbing egomaniacs – often the same thing – there had to be a financial payoff. That was usually precious metals, agricultural products or the availability of cheap (read: slave) labor. France’s interest in the vast New World territory in North America was no different. Owning the huge region was good for image but it had to pay.

There was some satisfaction for France in that they owned America’s “back door” which pretty much set the expansion boundaries for the English, and then defined the limits of what the Americans needed for westward expansion.

But for the French, there was the matter of tobacco. The French, never big fans of the Brits, liked the tobacco the English were producing in their American territories. The French, however, wanted their own source.

Louisiana looked like an excellent bet to satisfy the French people’s love of a good smoke. In this they were mistaken. Louisiana was, and still is for the most part, a terrible place to grow a quality tobacco leaf. Too much moisture. Too hot. And the soils were the wrong composition.

A bit of a side-note here: St. James Parish is one of the few places in the world capable of growing the very rare Perique tobacco plant. This black-leaf plant is used as a condiment, an additive, yielding a deep, sweet flavor to pipe tobacco. Not much is grown as it is quite labor-intensive to raise and requires extensive “curing” before it can be used in a final blend.  

To our north within the Orleans Territory, cotton was a fine agricultural investment. Incidentally, the Orleans Territory in its entirety became, for the most part, the boundaries for the State of Louisiana when citizens felt America was a better country for our protection needs rather than far-away Spain or France. Immediate validation for this belief came with the War of 1812, the very year of our statehood, and the Battle of New Orleans, 1815.

Agriculturally, the conditions to grow cotton were almost ideal to our north. It was a lot of work to harvest those white balls loaded with seeds but it was the crop of choice for the conditions.

The southern part of the Louisiana territory was a challenge with its soggy soils, high humidity levels and summertime hot temperatures. Until someone noticed that the weather and soils were similar to the Caribbean. And those islands produced tons of sugar cane. Sugar cane serves an excellent purpose of satisfying a human’s sweet tooth. But there is something else important about the cane.

Distillation is the process by which heat converts agricultural sugars to alcohol. Now we are on to something worthwhile. Taxes on alcohol was, and still is, a program any nation could sink its teeth into, and so sugar cane, an excellent resource for distillation, was our cash crop with rum being a valuable by-product.

About 1835, a bright, young inventor, Norbert Rillieux, a New Orleans Creole, developed the method to efficiently granulate the molasses of the sugar cane stalk and suddenly all manner of foods and beverages could easily be made as sweet as the user desired. Sweet was no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition but a convenient individual choice.

In the mid-1800s Louisiana’s cane was devoted primarily to granulated sugar and the rum industry was once again at the center of the economies on remote Caribbean islands.

But today there is a distillation comeback afoot in Louisiana. Within just a few months South Louisiana will be home to four distilleries, three of which will be start-up operations less than six months old.

The granddaddy operation of the Louisiana rum distillation rebirth scene is right here in the city limits of New Orleans. The Gentilly neighborhood is home to Celebration Distillation, founded by noted and respected local artist, James Michalopoulas. The challenge was to create a great product, named Old New Orleans Rum, in a place that had no history of doing such activity, and to rework legislation and regulations at the state level.

Simultaneously, the process and the equipment had to be addressed, alongside convincing elected officials and bureaucrats of what they should do to encourage a new business. The term “piece of cake” was not an apt description.  

The first white rum entered the market in 1999 and it was somewhat of a novelty. Professionals around town were not blown over by the product. Also they would not allow their reverse civic pride to accept a beverage of quality that is made in Gentilly. The distillery bumped along, continuing to tweak production of Old New Orleans Rum Crystal, Cajun Spice, and Amber products but never really gaining significant market traction as a serious, high quality spirit.

Then the oddest thing happened: Hurricane Katrina.

Next week, Part II of our rum tale. We will fill you in on the rest of Celebration Distillation’s Old New Orleans Rum story, as well as introduce you to three other distilleries ready to roll product. And we will relate an important role of the Louisiana Legislature, actually encouraging new business development in the state.

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