Local distilleries are making a comeback.
Over the past decade, the old Crystal, Blue Plate, Falstaff and Dixie buildings have become Potemkin factories that actually contain apartments or offices. Given this shift, it may look like we don’t manufacture food and drink around here anymore.
Look twice. With words like “locally sourced” now taking up ink on menus, and with being a farmer or maker of things suddenly cool again, it makes sense that there’s a rebound in the local manufacture of food and drink. And it makes sense that restaurants and cocktail bars would feature locally sourced spirits. But while the local beer-brewing trend has been afoot for a good while, there’s a sudden and significant resurgence in these parts when it comes to distilling.
John Keife, co-owner of the eponymous Keife & Co., recently gave me an inventory of the newbies. His wine and spirits shop on Howard and Carondelet is filled with little surprises. On a recent visit, one of those surprises was a locally produced gin I hadn’t noticed before.
Artist James Michalopoulos was way ahead of the local distillery trend; his Celebration Distillation began barreling Old New Orleans Rum back in the 1990s. But Keife has seen a new wave of Louisiana distilleries in just the last few years. He identified six of various sizes.
Among the largest is Louisiana Spirits Distillery in Lacassine. It focuses solely on the increasingly visible Bayou Rum. The varieties include the standard brown, a satsuma rum liqueur, a spiced rum and a clear rum.
Another big player is Donner-Peltier Distillery in Thibodaux. It produces a dark rum, a clear rum and a “praline” rum under the Rougaroux label. It sells a rice vodka and an 11-botanical gin under the Oryza label. It also makes a high-end rye whiskey called LA1.
In New Orleans, Atelier Vie makes two gins — one of them a golden colored “barrel-finished reserve” gin — called Euphrosine #9. Atelier Vie also makes two absinthes, Toulouse Green and Red. The company’s “Buck 25” vodka is, as the label suggests, a potent 125 proof. And it makes Riz whiskey, using Louisiana rice.
Despite its name, Cajun Spirits is also located in New Orleans. Its makes Crescent Vodka and 3rd Ward Gin using sugarcane. With all that sugarcane lying around, Cajun Spirits has put together a new rum called Tresillo.
Keife identified two other distilleries whose products are not in wide circulation. One is New Orleans’ Soc Au Lait Distillerie, maker of Seersucker Vodka. The other is Rank Wildcat Spirits of Lafayette, which makes Sweet Crude Rum (white) and Black Gold (brown).
Among the factors driving the distillery trend, Keife says, are a loosening of state regulations, “increasing consumer interest in locally sourced food products” and “the renaissance of the American cocktail.” The public wants “unique, artisanal spirits,” he says.
Keife knows of four additional startup distilleries set to open in the next couple of years.
“As restrictions are eased and the vestiges of prohibition continue to wane, we’ll only see more startups,” he says. But they’ll have to compete. The Crescent City has a limited market, Keife adds, “even as libatious as New Orleanians and its guests are.”
In the meantime, quality should improve “as distillers find their rhythm” and they experiment more with Louisiana products such as sweet potatoes, pecans and chicory, Keife says. He also looks forward to a time when longer-tenured manufacturers have kept spirits in barrels longer: “I’d really like to see what some 10-year-old barrel-aged Louisiana whiskeys and rums could do.”