Cajun Spirits' distillery, complete with copper boiler, rectification column, catalyzer and stainless condenser. (©Shawn Fink)
Considering its long and rich cocktail and spirits culture, it’s odd to think New Orleans didn’t have a post-Prohibition distillery until 1995, when Celebration Distillation debuted. Known for its award-winning Old New Orleans Rum line, Celebration would remain the only distillery in the city—and state—for the next 17 years.
“When we first opened,” notes Celebration founder James Michalopoulos, “there were no longer any rum makers in the U.S. We saw the sugar cane, knew what we liked to drink, and thought it looked like a good opportunity.”
In 2012 Jedd Haas followed with Atelier Vie, a small, artisanal distillery next to a Mid-City art studio, where the focus is on other spirits. Hass released Buck 25, a 125-proof “professional infusion grade” vodka, in September 2012 quickly followed by his own spin on a New Orleans classic, absinthe. Toulouse Rouge is a red absinthe with a markedly different herbal recipe (hibiscus) than Toulouse Green, which uses the traditional flavor profile plus locally grown wormwood. Atelier Vie also offers a barrel-aged gin called Euphrosine Gin #9 Barrel Finished Reserve, in addition to a traditional gin and a rice whiskey.
Over the past year there’s been a significant uptick in New Orleans distilleries, such as Cajun Spirits, which began distributing its vodka last October. Brothers Gus and Edward Haik set up shop to showcase local products and cater to what Crescent City mixologists need.
“We want to be a tool for bartenders,” says Gus Haik. “This is a bar city, and the bartenders are kind of like artists; we’re like the toolmakers. We’re not the end of the line, but we give them the ability to make great cocktails.”
The city’s newest distillery, NOLA Distilling, began production in August under the leadership of Kirk Coco, also the founder of NOLA Brewing. Coco’s love of combining alcohol with music continues with the distillery’s location in an old Uptown juke joint. Coco restored the club’s copper bar top for the distillery’s tasting room, where he serves samples of NOLA’s trademark vodka made with local sweet potatoes. A pepper vodka, gin and liqueur (made in collaboration with local coffee roaster French Truck) comes next.
Soon to open in Mid-City, large-scale Porchjam Distillation seeks to bring the New Orleans spirit, so to speak, to the larger national and international market. “We deserve multiple distilleries,” says owner Gordon Stewart, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, adding that he hopes Porchjam’s high levels of quality and consistency create a “humble but legitimate representation of the city.”
At Lula Restaurant Distillery, a unique micro-distillery in the Lower Garden District, spirits made onsite accompany the rustic Louisiana cuisine of chef/owner Jess Bourgeois. “People want to see who made their spirits, and where it came from,” says Bourgeois. “And people in New Orleans are super loyal to local products.”