Putting an accurate dollar value on the amount of alcohol that’s consumed in New Orleans in any given year would be impossible, but it’s safe to say the figure is high. Yet in a city that’s so closely associated with alcoholic beverages, doesn’t it seem odd that few spirits are actually produced here?
Drip by drip, that picture is changing. Distilling enterprises are popping up around the region, raising hope in some circles that New Orleans may further solidify its longstanding connection with flavorful, boozy libations.
At least five boutique distilleries have sprouted in just the last few years to join a single established local producer, Celebration Distillation, the maker of Old New Orleans Rum. That distillery, founded by visual artist James Michalopoulos, has enjoyed a near-monopoly on locally produced rum for the past 20 years, thanks to a provision in Louisiana law that restricted sales of such products directly to the public.
Last year lawmakers saw fit to loosen the reins on craft distillers. They opened the way for distillers to sell their products from their production sites as well as through distributors, and the change prompted a spurt of activity by entrepreneurs who had been waiting in the wings.
Jedd Haas was among those who jumped in. “I had planned for quite a while to start a manufacturing business, and the more I looked into distilling, the more I liked the idea,” he says.
Haas had noticed a wave of small distillers starting up around the country, and he was impressed by the success of Old New Orleans Rum. When the city passed new micro-distillery statutes in 2011 and the state showed signs of easing its regulation, he believed his time had come.
Now the founder and president of a fledgling distillery, Haas operates AtelierVie LLC, which produces a 125-proof vodka and a red absinthe from an unassuming warehouse beneath the Broad Street overpass at Euphrosine Street.
While the company’s initial target product was the absinthe, Haas says that legal hurdles to the production of absinthe caused delays in introducing the product, so AtelierVie instead moved on to vodka.
To avoid having to compete with a host of established makers of 80-proof vodka, Haas took aim at a higher-proof product that could be used to make custom-flavored spirits. The result was Buck 25, a 125-proof “infusion” vodka that’s becoming popular among chefs and bartenders who want to offer hand-crafted cocktails to their clientele.
“There’s a cocktail renaissance going on in New Orleans and nationwide,” Haas says. “A lot of it is driven by bartenders and creative individuals who are coming up with their own flavors.”
Haas says the higher alcohol content of Buck 25 enables it to stand up to flavor additions, ranging from strawberries and other fruits to herbs and seasonings. “Because it’s stronger than typical vodkas, when you build your drink, it doesn’t have to taste watered down,” he says.
The higher proof also enables a faster infusion of flavors, he adds. Whereas it might take a week to infuse a standard-strength vodka with additional flavors, Buck 25 can be infused overnight.
Shortly after Buck 25 hit the market last fall, the distiller finally released Toulouse Red, a 136-proof absinthe. Both spirits now are available in many local bars and restaurants, in retail stores including Dorignac’s, Rouses Market and Whole Foods Market and from the distillery on Broad Street.
Meanwhile, other beverage entrepreneurs have also entered the market. In Thibodaux, Donner-Peltier Distillers opened its doors near the end of 2012, introducing a rice-based vodka and two rum products: a dark, 80-proof rum called Rougaroux Full Moon, and a 101-proof clear rum dubbed Rougaroux Sugarshine.
Co-founder Tom Donner says a praline rum is up next, with a citrus-and-pepper-flavored rice gin on tap, as well as an aged whiskey, which could become the first whiskey distilled in Louisiana.
The new Louisiana Spirits LLC distillery is plotting its course from a home near the Lacassine sugar mill, where its founders are producing two versions of Bayou Rum.
And back in New Orleans, Ian Nygren, of Soc Au Lait Distillerie, LLC, plans to debut his new Seersucker Vodka soon.
The common thread among the Louisiana vodka and rum distillers is their easy access to a base ingredient – sugarcane.
“We’re trying to buy directly from Louisiana producers and give our products more of that local craft quality,” says Kenneth “Gus” Haik, the founder of Cajun Spirits Distillery LLC in New Orleans.
Haik and his partners are in the final stages of startup at a facility near Poydras and Broad streets. “We will probably produce some experimental products soon, starting with vodka and rum, but also working on a gin,” he says.
Haik, who formerly worked at Celebration Distillation, says he thinks the possibilities for branding additional alcoholic beverages with New Orleans are wide open.
He hopes to have new products on the market by fall, though at press time he was still awaiting delivery of production stills being shipped from Germany. “We’re putting a huge effort into the quality of our products,” he says.
Haik adds that he and his family have injected a substantial amount of money into the business as well. After many applications, he finally landed a bank loan this year to fund part of the operation, but he also has relied on capital contributions from family members and his own savings.
“It’s been a struggle, but we’re almost ready to produce,” he says.
Distilling the cocktail culture
New and established distilleries around the region include:
Atelier Vie LLC
1001 S. Broad St., New Orleans
Founder: Jedd Haas
Producing Buck 25 Vodka and Toulouse Red Absinthe
Cajun Spirits Distillery, LLC
2532 Poydras St., New Orleans
Founder: Kenneth Haik
Soon producing Crescent Vodka and Tresillo Rum
2815 Frenchmen St., New Orleans
Founder: James Michalopoulos
Producing Old New Orleans Cajun Spice, Amber and Crystal rums, and a 10-year special edition rum (available only at the distillery)
1635 St. Patrick Highway, Thibodaux
Founder: Tom Donner
Producing Oryza (rice vodka), Rougaroux Full Moon (dark 80-proof rum) and Rougaroux Sugarshine (101 proof clear rum)
Louisiana Spirits LLC
20909 S. Frontage Road, Lacassine
Founder: Timothy Litel
Producing Bayou Rum Silver and Spiced rums
Soc Au Lait Distillerie, LLC
301 N. Claiborne Ave., New Orleans
Founder: Ian Nygren
Soon to produce Seersucker Vodka