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Yo, Ho, Ho

Local rum world expands with a focus on Louisiana sugar cane

Kentucky claims bourbon. Russia is known for vodka, and Scotland for scotch. Why can’t Louisiana be the leader in domestic rum production?

“It makes sense when you consider Louisiana is the second largest sugar cane producer in the U.S.,” says Trey Litel, who, along with brother Tim Litel and their longtime friend Skip Cortese, recently opened Lacassine-based distillery Louisiana Spirits. In July, the company released its first two products, Silver Bayou Rum and Spiced Bayou Rum. “We were fascinated by the legacy, and we wanted to produce a completely local, ‘grass to glass’ product.”

Trey, a former marketing and sales rep for Bacardi, along with his brother and Cortese, both successful entrepreneurs, formed a plan three years ago to become the major craft distiller of rum in the state, tapping into the country’s enthusiasm for local products and boutique spirits. The team invested $10 million to build a ground-up distillery and visitor’s center off I-10 in Jefferson Davis Parish. The plan, says Litel, is to develop a strong following not just in Louisiana but around the country. The distillery was built to handle high-volume production and is being managed by distiller Jeff Murphy, who recently produced rum in the Dominican Republic.

Bayou Rum isn’t the only Louisiana rum distiller making waves. About 20 years ago, while visiting a friend in Switzerland, New Orleans artist James Michalopoulos sipped small-batch brandies made with local fruit. Inspired, he founded Celebration Distillation in the Crescent City. In 1999, the company released its Old New Orleans White Rum, soon followed by Amber and Cajun Spice. Celebration Distillation operates from Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.

Old New Orleans Rum was the only game in town for several years. Then, in 2012, Louisiana Spirits and two other local rum producers—Donner-Peltier Distillers (DPD) in Thibodaux and Rank Wildcat in Lafayette—obtained licenses.

DPD was founded by two couples, Tom and Becky Donner and Jennifer and Henry Peltier. The company currently produces two varieties of its Rougaroux rum, Sugarshine and Full Moon Dark Rum. DPD also produces boutique gin and high-end vodka distilled from Louisiana rice. All of the spirits have won national awards.

Rank Wildcat, a small-batch Lafayette-based distillery, was created by childhood friends David Meaux and Cole LeBlanc. Bottles of Rank Wildcat white rum, named Sweet Crude, hit Baton Rouge shelves in late July. Part of the company’s brand appeal is its grassroots development; Meaux and LeBlanc built their still, nicknamed Lulu, by hand.

Over the three-year course of Bayou Rum’s development, Litel became obsessed with Louisiana’s sugar cane history, poring over old documents and sugar house recipes, and channeling the earliest rum makers in the state—sugar cane farmers who experimented with their crop’s byproducts. The team also visited rum distilleries overseas and craft bourbon and whisky distillers in the United States. Their Lacassine site features a state-of-the-art still and a visitor’s center that includes a restored 100-year-old farmhouse the founders moved from the nearby town of Iowa, La.

All of the unrefined cane sugar and molasses needed to produce Bayou Rum comes from M.A. Patout & Sons, a sugar cane mill in Jeanerette.

Litel says the Silver Bayou Rum is smooth and great for sipping. “It’s got a fresh, cane nose. It’s nutty with hints of vanilla and banana, and the finish is candied cherry,” he says.

As for the Spiced Bayou Rum, look for notes of toffee and clove and a floral finish. Litel says the spiced rum includes a key ingredient grown in Louisiana, but the company is staying mum about it.

“It’s a secret,” Litel says. “Even if you guess it, I won’t tell you.”

Original story at 225 Baton Rouge.