Good things take time, Trey Litel says.
So does good rum.
That’s why Litel and his partners — who will make their global launch of Silver Bayou Rum and Spiced Bayou Rum at the Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans later this month — did not rush the introduction of their new products. Initial plans had called for the Louisiana distilled rum to reach markets in 2012, but the partners and their head distiller, Jeff Murphy, were not satisfied with the product then.
Now they are.
Litel, and his brother Tim, both Lake Charles natives, and business partner Skip Cortese have invested some $10 million in acquiring land alongside Interstate 10, about 50 miles west of Lafayette, constructing their distillery and tourism center and acquiring a century-old farmhouse from nearby Iowa and moving it to the site for administrative offices. The objective is to produce an outstanding Louisiana rum and market it in a way that showcases Louisiana at its finest.
“We decided we did not want to put our rum on the market until it was the best we could get,” Litel said last week. “And the project got better and better.”
The project is Louisiana Spirits, the distillery the partners dreamed up three years ago. They are now capable of producing 8,000 bottles of rum a day, and last week, Bayou Rum went on the shelves at Rouse’s supermarkets and Tobacco Plus.
“It’s selling like crazy,” said Sonya Leger, head of Rouses’ wine department. “I think everybody is excited about the local product.”
Recapturing glory days
The Litels have long hunted duck in southwest Louisiana and have asked themselves why, if the area is so rich in sugarcane, it does it not produce a local rum, which is made with sugarcane. Most rum comes from the Caribbean or from Latin America, where sugar cane is plentiful and rum flows through local distilleries.
In the U.S., however, there are no major rum producers outside the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The partners want to change that, and they want Louisiana to be the state where rum reigns.
It wasn’t always so. Prior to the Civil War, there were 1,271 sugar producers in Louisiana; many of them distilled rum, Tim Litel said. He hopes to recapture those glory days with a world-class rum.
Litel worked in marketing for the spirits business and for the rum maker Bacardi; his two partners had enjoyed success together in environmental services such as pumps, pipes and tanks. They had heard that some people were using local, Louisiana products in distilling, and decided to enter the business themselves but in a big way.
Long before they sold their first bottle, though, the partners found as much land as they could along I-10 — 22 acres in Lacassine — enough to accommodate administration and production functions and to welcome tourists. There is room to eventually grow sugarcane on the site, perhaps 10 acres. Landscaping includes ponds and cypress trees.
They got plenty of help from the Jefferson Davis Parish Economic and Tourism Commission, which smoothed the path for obtaining permits and getting the business started. In fact, executive director Marion Fox said, an archaic state law that only permitted distilling in New Orleans had to be overturned — there was no opposition to that, she said — before the business could proceed in Jefferson Davis Parish.
Before it sold its first bottle, the company had to build its facilities and distill the product.
The 1,900-square-foot main building and storage area — workers were putting finishing touches in last week — includes a tourism center and the production areas. The building includes beams from a century-old North Carolina textile mill. Seating for the tourist center includes pews from an old church destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The building, which may be open to the public sometime in late July, used reclaimed brick in its construction.
In that building, distiller Jeff Murphy worked on the Bayou Rum recipes for more than a year. Murphy, an ex-police officer from Maryland, took up distilling six years ago while his wife served in the military. He worked for a brewer in Singapore and did distilling in Texas. For two years, he worked for Privateer Rum in Ipswich, Mass. A consultant introduced the partners to Murphy.
In Louisiana, Murphy uses local, raw materials to create a distinctly Louisiana rum. M.A. Patout and Son in Iberia Parish, in business since 1825, is providing the raw sugar and molasses. Fox said the cane is grown in Jefferson Davis and processed by Patout, adding more local flavor to the tourism stop. Last week, 2,000-pound sacks of sugar rested on the production floor, ready for use.
Murphy said local materials make the Bayou Rum taste distinctive: The Bayou Rum Silver is “sweet and smooth,” he said; the spice product is more “typical” but, made with Louisiana materials, features classic traditional spices. Tourists, most of whom will come from the interstate, will receive half-ounce samples at tour’s end.
From the tourism center, visitors will be able to glance in and see the production process, which includes fermenting, distilling and the separation of alcohol, before the product moves to blending and then bottling.
On a wall in the production area is a 30-by-15-foot mural of a Louisiana swamp scene, painted by Pete Cortese, Skip’s brother, which is now being used in marketing the rum. “T-boy,” a life-sized model the owners found in an antique store in Texas, stands nearby with a crawfish sack over his shoulder and holding a bottle of rum. T-boy, too, is a marketing feature.
The marketing aspect is important to the company, which hopes Louisiana can claim rum production, with associated tourism trails, like Kentucky has claimed bourbon. In fact, barrels from Buffalo Trace Bourbon, which will be used in creation of an “aged rum” product are coming from Kentucky. The partners hope to present an aged product by the holiday season in 2014.
The marketing and tourism side of the business is important to Jefferson Davis Parish, too. Fox said that Louisiana Spirits may lift the parish to a new level in attracting visitors; nearby Exit 48 and available property nearby may develop quickly, she said.
“Who knows what will happen,” she said. “The future of distilling in Louisiana is very bright.”
First, though, the business must succeed. The company is distributing its product through Republic National Distribution Co., and the first shipment — 1,300 nine-liter cases — left Lacassine last week.
Next up is the 11th annual Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans beginning July 17, the company’s global launch, where some 6,000 bartenders and industry professionals will test new products. The company has four events scheduled, including a tasting room at the Hotel Monteleone, where four or five bartenders will offer drinks they have created with Bayou Rum.
Then comes the opening in Lacassine, perhaps by month’s end. Some 15-20 people will work at Louisiana Spirits.
Trey Litel said the Economic Development and Tourism Office helped smooth the way for the company to sell rum at the Lacassine site, where tourists will also be able to buy T-shirts and other company keepsakes.
“It’s very, very important based on what other distillery owners around the U.S. say,” he said. “Once people tour, then experience the taste, they might want to take a bottle with them, especially out-of-towners. “
“For us, it’s a bona fide business opportunity,” Litel said. “We believe Louisiana can be the rum state, just like Kentucky is the bourbon state.
“If we do a great job in Louisiana, our reputation will follow,” he said.
Original Story at The Advertiser