Celebration Distillation Corporation, New Orleans, LA
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The appearance in 1995 of a rum distillery in New Orleans is remarkable in several ways. The real wonder is that it took two and a half centuries to get here...
Sugar cane sprouts were first planted in south Louisiana in 1751 by a group of Jesuit priests who brought them from Santo Domingo in the Caribbean. Etienne de Boré built New Orleans first successful sugar mill in 1794, near what is now Audubon Park. The city's affection for spirits of every stripe has been continuous and deep, and its heat and humidity are ideal, not only for growing sugar cane but also for barrel-aging rum.
Those circumstances should have prompted some enterprising soul to set up a commercial rum distillery long before now. Americans were drinking rum long before they were downing corn whiskey. Originally called "rumbullion," it was by far the favorite spirit of the American colonies. In the 1700s molasses was shipped regularly from the Caribbean to distilleries in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut to be made into rum. In 1769, a 24-year-old Thomas Jefferson listed 83 bottles of it in his cellar's inventory. Ledgers at Mount Vernon mentioning vast numbers of barrels of rum attest to George Washington's high regard for the beverage.
When New Orleans artist James Michalopoulos created the Celebration Distillation Corporation five years ago, avenging history wasn't his motivation. "I was visiting a friend and patron in Switzerland who happens to be one of Europe's leading cognac flavorists," Michalopoulos says. "He and his wife had produced some homemade liqueurs, and I was intrigued by the possibility of doing the same in New Orleans with local produce."
Michalopoulos' timing couldn't have been better, considering the recent emergence of rum as a fashionable quaff, along with the expanding appreciation of premium barrel-aged rums as a serious alternative to fine brandies and whiskeys. New York Times wine-and-spirits columnist Frank Prial has pointed out that, technically, fine rums are like fine brandies; they can improve for half a century or more. It's a pity to use fine old rums in mixed drinks," Prial says. "They should be savored with, at the most, a little ice."
Today Celebration's product, carrying the brand name New Orleans Rum, is the only premium rum commercially distilled in North America and Hawaii. "N.O. Rum," the shorthand name for it, is distributed in 14 states, and it is steadily gaining respect from connoisseurs. "We call our method craft distilling," says Mark Stewart, Celebration's chief distiller. "There are much cheaper ways to make rum. Doing it this way takes more money and a bit more time, but the final product's quality is worth it."
New Orleans Rum, a dark one, is bottled at 86 proof, compared to the 80 proof level of most rums. Unlike some popular brands, New Orleans Rum contains no additive flavors, colors or sugars. And production is small: "For us, a single mash runs less than 200 gallons, a fraction of what the giant distillers produce," says business manager Jed McSpadden. "The product we have on the market now ages a minimum of three years, and often four. It's so hot and humid here that we're not as concerned about evaporation as most large companies are. Caribbean producers who've visited the distillery are surprised at the speed of the aging qualities we get."
Celebration's spirit is aged in charred oak barrels bought from Kentucky whiskey distiller Jack Daniel's; they give the rum its smooth, smoky flavor and caramel color. "We like what it does to the taste of the rum," McSpadden says. "By law, Jack Daniel's can use its barrels only once. But we can use the barrels for another seven or eight years, over and over. The heavy char gives it not only color, but also flavors like vanilla."
The molasses used to make the fermented "mash"(with the room's temperature and humidity continuously monitored) is edible and high-grade. "We use purified and pasteurized molasses, not the stuff they feed cows with," says Stewart. The molasses is made from sugar cane grown in St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes by the firm of Caire & Graugnard. Six generations of Caires, including the family's present patriarch, Joseph Gregoire Caire, have been in the sugar cane business in Louisiana since the mid-19th century. Caire & Graugnard's antebellum headquarters building, swathed in rose-colored brick, still sits proudly across from Edgard's stretch of Mississippi River levee.
All of Celebration Distillation's operations -- fermenting, distillation and barrel-aging -- take place in a large, warehouse-like structure on Frenchmen Street in an industrial neighborhood of Gentilly. The entire process is monitored by Mark Stewart, the Celebration president and Jonathan Kline, a vice-president.
Stewart and Kline also oversee the small research-and-development lab, crowded with the usual flasks and beakers. Sprigs of herbs and bitters steep in a huge glass jar, near a table holding more than a score of other brands of rum.
Stewart and Kline are "always experimenting with blending for future products," McSpadden says, "but the current product is straight as is, not blended. We're working on a white rum that'll be out shortly. It's now going through a charcoal filtration system to remove any impurities. White rums are clear, because they're not aged. Our white will have a nice hint of molasses, sort of a light chocolatey nose to it. We also experiment with different types of barrels, and blending old and new products. We'd like to come out with a lot more than just one or two rums. We'd like to have a blended product along the lines of Mount Gay's Extra Old, which is a blend of nine different types of rum."
The laboratory is on a small mezzanine. Below it, on the ground-level cement floor, lie rows of oak barrels, 220 of them, each holding about 50 gallons of distillate, the equivalent of 37 1/2 cases of bottled rum. They've been a long time in coming, but they are probably here to stay.
Evidence of that comes from the assessment of New Orleans Rum's attributes by Louis Alaya, author of a comprehensive book on rum. His notes state: "Rich amber color with traces of red copper. Aromatic and fruity nose that speaks of raw sugar cane juice. Opens nicely in the palate, revealing notes of oak, licorice, sweet vanilla and caramel. Ends richly with nice aromatic persistence. An excellent single-barrel entry ticket into the world of rum by this new and exciting company."
Here are full texts from the labels
us_29: Craft distilled from pure Louisaiana sugar cane; New Orleans Extra Premium; N.O. Rum; 750 ml; 43_ alc by vol (86 proof); Celebration Distillation Corporation
us_1: Craft distilled from pure Louisaiana sugar cane; New Orleans Extra Premium; N.O. Rum; 750 ml; 43_ alc by vol (86 proof); Celebration Distillation Corporation
us_107: New Orleans rum; Amber; Crafdt distilled and bottled in New Orleans, Louisiana; 40% alc/vol; 80 Proof; 750 ml
us_108: New Orleans rum; Crystal; Crafdt distilled and bottled in New Orleans, Louisiana; 40% alc/vol; 80 Proof; 750 ml
us_109: Cane; New Orleans rum; 750 ml; 40% alc/vol; 80 Proof
us_183: Crystal Louisiana Rum; Old New Orleans
us_184: Louisiana Age 3 years Rum; Old New Orleans
us_186: Louisiana Age 10 years Rum; Old New Orleans
us_185: Cajum Spiced Louisiana Rum; Old New Orleans; 750 ml; 40% alc/vol (80 Proof))
us~1: Craft distilled from pure Louisaiana sugar cane; New Orleans Extra Premium; N.O. Rum; 750 ml; 43_ alc by vol (86 proof); Celebration Distillation Corporation