|Hoping to ride the eat/drink local movement, Louisiana Spirits opens big.|
Former Bacardi Rum marketing and sales representative Trey Litel had become perplexed about something in the rum industry: How was it that the second-largest producer of sugarcane in the country didn't use some of that raw material for rum production?
Other sugarcane-producing spots, especially those in Central America, had succeeded in the rum business. It seemed liked a missed opportunity for Louisiana, where sugarcane has grown for centuries.
So three years ago, Litel, his brother Tim Litel, and their longtime friend Skip Cortese began working on a plan to open a Louisiana-based rum distillery that could produce "grass to glass," high-end rum from Louisiana sugarcane.
Ten million dollars later, the Louisiana Spirits distillery is now open off Interstate 10 in Lacassine, and its inaugural products, Bayou Rum Silver and Bayou Rum Spiced, are on shelves throughout Louisiana. The company anticipates nationwide distribution will start soon.
In mid-July, the founders were able to get their product in front of an audience of about 6,000 bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts at the annual Tales of the Cocktail, a lively conference on the latest in spirits that takes place every summer in the Crescent City. The founders discussed launching their distillery, and they poured samples of their rums and talked about the historic connection between Louisiana sugarcane and rum production.
"We were fascinated by the legacy," says company President Trey Litel. "It's such a natural fit for Louisiana to be a leader in domestic rum production. It seemed so strange to us when we got started that the state wasn't a leader in it."
Cortese and Tim Litel, successful environmental services entrepreneurs, funded the company's $10 million startup, which included purchasing almost 23 acres along the South Frontage Road of Interstate 10 in Jefferson Davis Parish, and building an 18,000-square-foot facility that houses the distillery, barrel storage, a bottling line, offices, a gift shop, and a viewing room that functions like a mini-museum. According to the company, the viewing room reveals the state's historic role as a sugarcane producer and rum distiller with memorabilia and curated exhibits. Tours will begin in the next few weeks.
The founders also relocated a 1903 farmhouse from the nearby town of Iowa, in Calcasieu Parish, to add to the agricultural atmosphere; with the same goal in mind, they're also adding natural features such as a pond and a field of sugarcane to bolster the brand. Louisiana Economic Development provided support for the development of the site. The company is creating 17 to 20 direct full-time jobs.
The distillery was built to handle high-volume production. Litel says the team recruited distiller Jeff Murphy from a rum distillery in the Dominican Republic to run Louisiana Spirits.
The three founders, two of whom live in Baton Rouge, are hoping their facility will become a hub for culinary tourism. Over the course of Bayou Rum's three-year development, Litel pored over old sugarcane plantation documents and sugarhouse recipes, and studied the techniques of the state's early rum makers, generally sugarcane farmers who experimented with their crop's byproducts. The team also visited rum distilleries overseas as well as craft bourbon and whisky distilleries in the U.S. All of the unrefined cane sugar and molasses needed to produce Bayou Rum comes from M.A. Patout & Sons, a sugarcane mill in Jeanerette.
Louisiana Spirit's brand, developed in part by Baton Rouge marketing firm BRZoom and website developer Gatorworks, unabashedly appeals to farm-to-table fans, and to aficionados of craft cocktails. That purposeful branding will also help the company draw visitors to the distillery, says Marion Fox, executive director of the Jeff Davis Economic Development, Tourist, and Film commissions.
Louisiana now has four rum distillers:
"This is an exciting project because it draws on who we are in this part of the state," she says. "We are a rural, agriculture-based parish. We don't want to be New Orleans or Lake Charles. We want to add value to who we are and what we do already."
Before Louisiana Spirits could start production, Litel worked to undo a state law that had prohibited tours and direct sales at distilleries outside of New Orleans. This happened in 2012, easing the path not just for Litel but also for two other new distillers: Donner-Peltier Distillers in Thibodaux and Rank Wildcat in Lafayette.
Founded by local professionals Tom and Becky Donner and Jennifer and Henry Peltier, DPD currently produces two varieties of its Rougaroux rum: Sugarshine white rum and Full Moon dark rum. It also distills boutique gin and high-end vodka from Louisiana rice. Rank Wildcat, a small-batch Lafayette-based distillery whose first product is called Sweet Crude white rum, is the brainchild of childhood friends David Meaux and Cole LeBlanc.
A fourth Louisiana rum distiller has opened in New Orleans since 1999: Celebration Distillation, which operates from Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.
So far, Louisiana Spirits' sales have been strong and consumer reception is positive, Litel says. The product is being distributed through Republic National and is in about a thousand retail outlets.
"Our goal is to take it nationwide," Litel says, "and we have a really good chance of doing that."
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