I'll Have Another Please
Louisiana craft distillers are getting in on the action of an industry that continues to explode.
Photos courtesy of Donner-Peltier Distillers.
Carol Interiano has been mixing drinks in the shadow of the Superdome at Walk-On’s for almost a year.
Locals and tourists alike come to the 1009 Poydras St. bar, where she said they’re often looking for something new and intoxicating.
“We introduce our customers to new products, and they embrace all the local drinks we have,” the petite, 23-year-old brunette said while handling a Louisiana Lightning whiskey bottle.
Interiano said her special blend of the clear sour mash whiskey, lemonade and a splash of Sprite is perfect for the ladies who want to enjoy a smooth, light whiskey, but still appreciate their liquor.
Louisiana Lightning is made by a craft distillery in Amite and is just one of the local craft spirits lining the bar at Walk-On’s.
“The craft distillery industry is exploding,” said Matthew Dufour, co-owner and operator of the first licensed clear whiskey distillery in the State.
Dufour said he started his distillery business less than two years ago with a 500-gallon, $150,000 pot still and five employees. Working with his dad Lionel, Dufour said their Louisiana Lightning is now sold at more than 400 stores throughout Louisiana. Distribution is set to expand to Mississippi and Texas, and they’ve been getting inquiries as far away as New York, breaking sales records month after month.
Donner-Peltier Distiller’s Rougaroux Rums, LA1 Whiskey and Oryza Rice Vodkas and Gins. RIGHT: In business less than two years, Donner-Peltier’s Distillery in Thibodaux, La., features a German-made 3,000 liter, 18-foot-high steam-fired copper Kothe still with two columns, capable of rectifying spirits 17 times in a single pass.
Drinking It In
There has been significant growth in the number of craft distillers in the U.S. and Louisiana.
According to the Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s 2013 Annual Report, the number of permitted craft distillers grew by 122 percent from 2009 to 2013. As of September 2014, there were 1,705 distillers nationwide, and 675 of them were craft.
Eleven of them are in Louisiana, and a handful more are in various stages of development.
The Tax and Trade Bureau define craft libations as those coming from distilled spirits producers that paid tax on less than 100,000 proof gallons annually.
“My Dad’s been wanting to do this for years,” Dufour said. “He always wanted to make whiskey. I was a little nervous, and I tried to talk him out of it. Thankfully, I failed.”
The father and son’s “lightning in a bottle” non-aged whiskey has won six awards and retails at $18.99. Dufour said a Wild Strawberry Whiskey will premiere in December and bourbon aged in a barrel by July 2015.
The key to their success, he said, is that he and other craft distillers are doing something the big distillers aren’t – producing customized, home grown products, using local ingredients and local labor.
“People love local,” Dufour said. “Without public demand, none of us would be in business. Louisiana was always been known for its food, and now it’s becoming known for its beverages. There’s a lot of interest in Louisiana. It’s not just Duck Dynasty.”
“Louisiana was always known for its food, and now it’s becoming known for its beverages.
–Matthew Dufour, co-owner and operator of Louisiana Lightning
Tying One On
“It’s part of the general Renaissance in the U.S. of going back to basics,” said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute (ADI), of the explosion of craft distilleries. “The public wants hand-crafted, locally made products. That’s the niche we’re going to fill.”
Owens says the industry is growing 30 percent a year. Of the currently 717 craft distilleries across the nation, 550 are operational and the rest are on the verge of decanting their first marketable drop. He said about 10 percent of craft distilleries are owned and operated by women.
ADI is a professional membership organization that certifies craft distillers, craft blenders and farm distilleries. The Institute has certified 800 brands as purely craft, and reports more than 1 million cases of craft distilled products were sold in 2013, approaching 0.5 percent of all U.S. distilled spirits cases.
The group taps those who feel they have a nose for making quality craft hooch and booze and offers workshops and business plan spreadsheets. He said startup costs range from $500,000 to $10 million, and it typically takes at least two years for a distillery to open for business.
Craft distilling is a lifestyle choice for “long distance thinkers,” Owens said. “No one says they’re going to open a distillery and flip it. They do it because their grandfather was a bootlegger or their grandmother ran her own still.”
According to American Craft Spirits, a non-profit trade association, said 5,000 distilleries were operational in 1890. After Prohibition there were only eight left operating legally.
“Prohibition did us no favors,” said Philip M. Dobard, vice president of the SoFAB Institute, home of The Museum of the American Cocktail. The historic legislation may have drowned an age-old culture of craft distilling, but Dobard said the industry is awash with optimism. “It’s just starting to recover,” he said, “and it’s growing nationwide.”
American Craft Spirits predicts there will be 600 new distilleries by the end of 2015, and the industry will experience much stronger growth than mainstream spirit brands.
“It’s in your DNA,” Owens said. “People are passionate about this – especially farmers. In Louisiana, if you make your own rum, it’s like you’re going back 250 years in history.”
The first licensed clear whiskey distillery in Louisiana, Louisiana Lightning in Amite La., will soon expand distribution to Mississippi and Texas. ABOVE: Bayou Rum’s Satsuma, Silver and Spiced rums have won 49 awards so far this year. The distillery uses local, raw, unrefined cane sugar. Photos courtesy of Louisiana Lightning and Bayou Rums.
Hair of the Dog
“The liquor business was in a stranglehold by big conglomerate companies ever since Prohibition,” said Trey Litel, president of Louisiana Spirits, LLC, and craft distiller of Bayou Rum brands. “But now you have people out there who say, ‘I can make a rum out of the best sugar cane there is in Louisiana – why not us?’”
In 2011, Litel and his partners started construction on the largest privately owned rum distillery in the U.S. – a 35,000-square-foot facility in Lacassine, La. – where they ferment, distill, maturate and bottle from the same location.
With two American-made Vendome Copper pot stills, Litel produces a line of Bayou Rums – Satsuma, Silver and Spiced – which have been on the market for just over a year and have already won 49 awards in 2014 so far.
He said Bayou Rum takes advantage of the local landscape, using raw, 100 percent unrefined cane sugar and molasses from M.A. Patout & Sons Enterprise Factory in Patoutville, La., all pressed from fresh sugarcane harvested from Louisiana fields.
“People today care about what they eat and what they drink,” Litel said. “They find out what’s in a product. The ‘Farm to Table’ movement is coming over to distilled spirits.”
With 13 employees and close to 23 acres, Litel has the capacity to expand, but he said the company is still growing its brand and distribution. Bayou Rum is sold in 2,000 outlets throughout Louisiana, including CVS and Wal-Mart, and he expects sales this year to be twice last year’s.
“We feel like we have an historical base,” Litel said. “Rum made in the state - we feel like we’re bringing it back legitimately.”
Tough to Swallow
It used to be against Louisiana law for craft distillers to let customers take tours of their facilities or buy their products and merchandise on site.
Thankfully, however, that is no longer the case, and Litel is now able to follow a retail and tourism model - like at the acclaimed Buffalo Trace Bourbon Distillery in Frankfort, KY - thus enabling his rum distillery to reach its full potential.
“We were the catalyst,” he said. “We drafted a one-page bill and gave it to the local politicians. We wanted a chance to show that distillers like us could bring in tourism and revenue dollars to the state.”
Senate Bill 64 was introduced and passed by the Louisiana State Legislature in May 2012, and Litel officially became able to offer distillery tours, a viewing room, a rum tasting bar and a gift shop where customers can buy up to 12 bottles of his signature rum.
Another law craft distillers are supporting is the “Distillery Excise Tax Reform Act of 2014.” Currently, craft brewers and winemakers have a more manageable excise tax schedule that supports growth and local economic benefits. Craft distillers are seeking parity. To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 would reduce the rate of taxation on distilled spirits.
According to Owens, the proposal, introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2014, would create a tax rate of $2.70 per proof gallon for the first 100,000 proof gallons produced annually. For each gallon over 100,000, the tax would then revert to the current full rate of $13.50 per proof gallon.
“We want the same breaks wineries and brewers get,” he said about the bill. “That would let us put out our products cheaper, hire more people and create jobs.”
Bayou Rum’s Litel said U.S. rum distillers also have an economic disadvantage competing against rum imported from Puerto Rico, whose manufacturers, he said, get tax breaks that often make products like his more expensive on the shelf. His products range in price from $7.99 to $27.99.
“When you buy Bayou Rum you’re supporting sugar cane farmers in Louisiana,” he said. “When you buy imported rum you’re supporting another country. You make the choice.”
“The ‘Farm to Table’ movement is coming over to distilled spirits.”
–Trey Litel, president of Louisiana Spirits, LLC
Three Sheets to the Wind
“Drinking local products means a lot to me,” said Mo Erin, a young twenty-something, while sipping a cocktail at a table by the window at Bar Tonique on 820 N. Rampart Street. “I like their finesse and high quality.”
A hipster haven at the edge of the French Quarter, Bar Tonique boasts a beverage menu of handcrafted cocktails without the pretense.
“We’re all cocktail and liquor nerds here,” said another young woman, Bazil Zerinsky, while coaxing the last few drops from a stainless steel cocktail shaker into a glass. “We love to learn about spirits and old drinks.”
As a Bar Tonique bartender for more than two years, Zerinsky said she’s come to believe it’s all about attention to detail, whether it’s making the perfect potion or distilling it.
“We try to get new products when they come on the market,” she said. “Tourists often come in here wanting to try something new, something they can’t get at home.”
Zerinsky said she uses the popular locally distilled Old New Orleans Rum for her St. Claude cocktails, and she also favors Donner-Peltier’s Rougaroux Rums, LA1 Whiskey and Oryza Rice Vodkas and Gins.
According to Beth Donner, co-owner of Donner-Peltier Distillers, the decision to expand from rum to other spirits was driven by demand.
“We thought since there are so many vodka, whiskey and gin drinkers, let’s use this boom to the best of our advantage,” she said.
Between 2009 and 2013, the number of permitted craft distillers in the U.S. grew by 122 percent. Louisiana Lightning’s founder Lionel Dufour began producing whiskey less than two years ago and the company continues to break sales records month after month. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Lightning.
Pick Me Up
Donner said her Thibodaux, La., distillery, which has been in business less than two years, is the first aged whiskey distillery in Louisiana since Prohibition. Staying true to their “Grain to Glass, Cane to Cocktail” mission is what she banks on to keep afloat.
“If you stay craft, make one batch at a time, and stay true to your product, I think you’ll succeed,” she said.
Donner added that when they built the distillery, Senate Bill 64 had not yet passed.
“Passage of that bill was huge because being able to have people come in and tour and taste your product and buy it without going through a distributor is a big benefit,” she said, noting the 15 percent retail bump her business enjoyed.
Donner’s products sell for between $20 to $45 and are stocked in 450 outlets throughout Louisiana. She said the distillery just got licensed in Mississippi and currently ships to Montana and Canada - manufacturing 5,000 cases in 2013. They plan to produce 10,000 in 2014 and 20,000 in 2015.
As a startup, the distillery invested in a German-made 3,000 liter, 18–foot-high steam-fired copper Kothe still with two columns, capable of rectifying spirits 17 times in a single pass. They have a 50-gallon still just for gin and recently purchased a Vendome 750-gallon still for their whiskey expansion.
After the distillery secured Grade A molasses from their local sugar mill for their rum, they turned to one of Louisiana’s top crops for their Oryza Vodka and Gin – long grain, naturally grown, gluten free rice from Rayne, La.
“We know the people who farm the rice, and we know the people who grow the cane,” she said. “It’s such a unique situation to be in, to have a relationship with the people who help make your products.”
The Donner-Peltier Distillers line of rums includes Rougaroux Full Moon Dark Rum, and 13 Pennies Rum, which is naturally flavored by locally grown pecans and cane syrup and used in some of the bread puddings and bananas fosters served at French Quarter restaurants. There is also the 101 proof Sugarshine Rum, which was awarded a 93 rating by The Beverage Tasting Institute, making it the highest rated rum in Louisiana.
But it’s the distillery’s LA1 94-proof aged whiskey, made from four grains and chocolate malt, that’s got them in a muddle.
“We have a waiting list,” she said of the coveted brand currently aging and due out next spring.
“Tourists often come in here wanting to try something new, something they can’t get at home.”
–Bazil Zerinsky, bartender at Bar Tonique
On the Wagon
Some credit the craft beer movement for the recent success of distilleries, saying it paved the way for impassioned craft spirit proprietors. The ACSA reports craft spirits trails craft beer by 20 years and wine by 40, but the growth curve for craft spirits is statistically slightly greater than the comparable period in craft brewing, a $10.2 billion dollar market.
“Craft distilled products are following in the paths of the artisan and craft wine, cheese and beer booms,” Owens said. “We’re the last of that cycle.”
Even though he concedes the highly regulated and expensive industry is enough to give anyone a hangover, Louisiana Lightning’s Dufour said he’s anticipating adding more stills.
“The success of local craft beer companies gave us optimism.”
For Donner, a former stay-at-home mom for 19 years, being a craft distiller has more than enough rewards to make up for the headaches.
“It’s a sense of pride,” she said. “We’re so proud of the product in our bottle, and to be living a dream.”
Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.
Historic Candy Company Expands Into Flavored Rums
2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first day that Sam Cortese began selling hand-pulled Roman Candy from his now-signature red and white mule-drawn wagon through the streets of New Orleans.
His granddaughter, Mary Lee Kottemann DeVun, and her husband David DeVun, wanted to create a little something to commemorate the date.
It took two years of research and development, but by using the same molasses base and flavorings found in the original chewing candy, Roman Candy Rum was born.
And it looks like the family stumbled onto another iconic craft brand.
“It tastes just like candy,” DeVun said of all three labors of love – chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavored rums. “We originally made it just to give out to the family. But it got raves.”
Based in New Orleans, DeVun said his 70-proof rum is distilled and imported from Puerto Rico, but they batch it, flavor it, and bottle it in the U.S. Following the craft distillery trend, he said he’s looking forward to the sweet opportunity to move his whole operation to Louisiana.
Created to mark the 100th anniversary of Roman Candy, the company’s new rum is winning awards and looking to double production. Photo courtesy of Roman Candy Rum.
Roman Candy Rum went public in January 2014, and by April 2014 they won a gold and silver distinction for their chocolate and vanilla rums at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America convention in Las Vegas.
Roman Candy Rum can be found in New Orleans at Rouses, Dorignac’s, Breaux Mart, Robert Fresh Market and Albertsons.
DeVun says his rums cost $17.99 to $22.99 a bottle. The company now has eight employees and sales have been growing exponentially.
While his brother-in-law, Ron Kottemann, is still masterfully rolling and selling hand-made taffy, one stick at a time, from the same wooden wagon on the streets of New Orleans, DeVun is trying to get a handle on his burgeoning empire.
He says he plans on selling holiday gift sets with both Roman Candy taffy and rum, and aged and dark rum varieties are in the works.
There has also been customer demand for the miniature wooden replicas of the red and white wagon used as market displays that another Cortese family member makes.
“Our business plan is to blow up and saturate Louisiana,” DeVun said. “We’re all about New Orleans.”
But not just New Orleans is all about Roman Candy Rum. DeVun said he’s received queries from New York, San Francisco and Canada.
“The college kids in Baton Rouge got a hold of it, and they love it,” DeVun said. “And a nice lady from Missouri called and wanted to buy some. Since we’re not allowed to ship it, she hopped into her car, drove down here, bought $300 worth and drove right back home.”
In 2014, 750 cases of Roman Candy Rum were manufactured. DeVun said they’re looking forward to doubling production in 2015.
“We consider ourselves a small batch company, but never say never,” DeVun said. “I’m convinced craft distilling and brewing are the fastest growing industries in Louisiana. The best reward is being successful at a dream. As my Daddy used to say ‘If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.’”