If there’s one thing that New Orleans is good for, it’s a stiff drink. If there’s another thing it’s good for, it’s artsy, eccentric characters. Mix them together, stir, and you’ve got the makings of a small-batch premium rum distillery.
In 1995, James Michalopoulos, a New Orleans-based artist, converted an old cotton warehouse in the 9th ward into Celebration Distillation, the first small-batch premium rum distillery in the mainland United States. Inspired by a Swiss friend who made homemade liqueurs from the fruits of her garden, Michalopoulos looked into his own backyard for inspiration, and sugar cane—an abundant Louisiana crop—became the obvious choice. Considering how much drinking goes on in New Orleans, and how much sugar cane is grown all around it, it’s surprising this hadn’t been done before.
Michalopoulos and his artist and musician friends experimented with rum-making processes, settling on their own unique combination pot and column still—made from a perfume still from the 1930’s—which enabled them to create robust flavor and also achieve purity and control over the process. It’s a temperamental instrument, but they think it’s worth it.
The rum is produced with black strap molasses—a by-product of sugar cane—and aged in single oak bourbon barrels. The distillery produces: Crystal, a white rum with rich caramel and vanilla flavors; Amber, a medium-bodied blend of three aged rums with creamy, smoky flavor; and Cajun Spice, a sophisticated spiced rum steeped with whole cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, chicory and cayenne that would make Captain Morgan walk the plank, could he actually taste it.
There is a fourth rum; it’s the real booty, and one of the only good things to come out of Hurricane Katrina, if such a thing is possible. The storm destroyed seven of the company’s barrels and shut down the distillery for nearly a year, but during cleanup, workers discovered seventeen barrels of 10-year-old rum that had all but been forgotten. This 10-Year Special Edition Rum has an intense, complex flavor, but can only be tasted at the distillery.
If the artistry is in the spirit, it’s in the bottle as well: peek inside the glass and you’ll see the ornate architecture of the streets of New Orleans, painted by James Michalopoulos himself.
Today New Orleans Rum produces about 4,000 cases of rum a year, and has led the way for a new crop of American small-batch distilleries.
New Orleans Rum is easy to come by in Louisiana. Otherwise, you can buy it online here: DrinkUpNY.com
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