While the Gulf waters off the Louisiana coast are a treasure trove for seafood that dons the table during Mardi Gras, some of our stuff on land can be just as essential for a party, including Louisiana sugarcane, the main ingredient found in locally distilled rum.
It’s the unique ingredient that makes local rum so distinctive, perfect for blending with mixers, cola or simply served over ice.
Louisiana is fairly new to the rum game despite growing as much, if not more, sugarcane than rum-producing Caribbean nations.
The first rum distillery in Louisiana started operating in 1995 when New Orleans artist James Michalopoulos saw an opportunity to utilize one of Louisiana’s most important crops. He started New Orleans Rum in a warehouse on Frenchmen Street near the French Quarter, and partnered with a sugar mill in Thibodaux to get blackstrap molasses for his rum recipe.
New Orleans Rum now has 10 full-time employees and mass-produces three unique rums. Their bestseller is a five-year-aged Cajun Spiced Rum. Brewers add nutmeg, cloves, cayenne and hickory to the molasses to get the flavors of New Orleans, says Jason Coleman, marketing director for the company.
With the success of New Orleans Rum, and the lifting of strict regulations on selling directly to consumers, eight rum distilleries have received permits from the federal government to operate in Louisiana as of November 2013.
One of the newer operations is Rank Wildcat, which released its first official batch of rum in August 2012. It’s a five-man outfit distilling small-batch rum out of Lafayette. The co-founders, David Meaux and Cole LeBlanc, work in the oilfield by day and run the micro-distillery on the side. To get to their warehouse, one must drive past acres and acres of sugarcane fields, crops planted right up to the edge of the road.
Rank Wildcat uses sugarcane juice rather than molasses for their rum called “Sweet Crude,” getting the sugarcane juice from M.A. Patout and Sons, the oldest and largest family-run sugar mill in Louisiana.
It takes a week to hand-make each batch in large stills. Every Monday, LeBlanc and Meaux mix the recipe and add yeast to start the fermentation process. Rank Wildcat also produces a dark rum and signature aged rum.
Elsewhere, Bayou Rum in Lacassine celebrated its opening in November 2013, Cane Land Distilling announced it was opening a rum distillery in Baton Rouge and Tresillo Rum is currently being distilled in New Orleans. All use Louisiana sugarcane to make their product.
The products are found in local liquor stores, grocery stores and in bars throughout the state. But the market is quickly becoming national. New Orleans Rum is already being sold across state lines, and Coleman says by the end of 2015, New Orleans Rum hopes to have a presence in all 50 states.
He said the presence of local rum distilleries means sweet success for everyone.
“The better the distilleries do, the better people will think of rum in and outside of Louisiana. A rising tide floats all ships.”
Sugarcane in Louisiana
For the past 200 years, Louisiana sugarcane has been an integral part of the economy of south Louisiana. Brought to Louisiana in 1751 by Jesuit priests, sugar cane now results in an annual $2 billion industry for Louisiana.
The area’s mild climate and heavy rainfall make it a perfect place to grow the tall, sweet sugar cane stalks, and local entrepreneurs have recently connected the local sugar cane crop to the distilling of local rum.
Each fall, the cane is harvested by chopping down the long stems while leaving the roots, so that it re-grows and produces the next year’s crop. According to the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center, the cut cane is crushed (pressed) and the extracted juice is heated, clarified and evaporated into large kettles. Impurities that rise to the surface are skimmed off, and a pure syrup results. Rum distillers use both the molasses and the pure cane juice for formulating their unique specialized rums.