The Spirited Rum Roots of New Orleans

From "tafia" to tiki to Celebration Distillation, the story of rum's near-300-year stronghold on the Crescent City.

From Pat O’Brien’s trademark Hurricane and the "proto-tiki" cocktails at Cane & Table to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop’s signature planter’s punch and the flaming bananas foster at Brennan’s, rum has a sweet and steady rhythm in the Crescent City. Not familiar with rum and all its nuances? You’re in the perfect place to give the sugary spirit a swirl.

Rum is not native to Louisiana, and its arrival in New Orleans was quite a bit later than the rest of the country. However, the city is home to one of America’s only rum distilleries currently in production. That would be the Celebration Distillation, which produces the label Old New Orleans Rum and offers visitors a firm understanding of how this sweet spirit changed our country overall. But we are getting a slight bit ahead of ourselves; first, a toast to history.

Old New Orleans Rum

Rum’s past is about as easy to see through as a pitcher of planter’s punch. Wayne Curtis, author of the book “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails,” calls rum the “history of America in a glass,” and like the United States, rum was derived from a multitude of cultures. Just what qualifies as rum is a rather broad definition. “If sugar cane or its byproducts are involved in the distillation,” Curtis explains, “you can call it rum. Rum is the melting pot of spirits.”

Its birthplace and date are equally muddled. Some historians claim rum was invented on the Spanish islands of Hispaniola or in Cuba, while many credit its origin to Barbados or the Portuguese colonies in Brazil. Still others recognize the French influences of the West Indies. Dates range wildly as well, from the 1400s to the more acceptable timeline beginning around the early 1600s and stretching through the mid 17th century, when rum could be easily acquired in most of the New World colonies.

“It is hard to say when rum actually first arrived in New Orleans,” says rum expert Stephen Remsberg, who lives in the Crescent City and has the largest vintage rum collection in the world—more than 1,000 bottles strong, several more than a century old. “Rum was being distilled on the sugar plantations, but it was pretty rough stuff. They called it ‘tafia,’ and it was widely consumed in taverns and on farms.”

Stephen Remsberg (©Shawn Fink)

In its earliest days, rum was nicknamed “Kill Devil,” because the spirit was aged in lead-lined pot stills, producing a concoction that would not only get a man drunk, but poison him as well. Tavern owners would cut the nasty, burning taste with strong spices and fruit juice, creating "punches."

“It was the leading spirit in the U.S. during Colonial times,” Remsberg notes. “Prior to WWI and Prohibition and right up until WWII, there was a good deal of rum being produced in Louisiana and nationally distributed to other places. In the mid 1930s, there was a local label called Pontalba, a Puerto Rican brand made here called Carioca and another local brand called Cabildo.” Remsberg counts vintage price lists among his collection; one from 1930 lists New Orleans’ Cabildo rum priced at 40-cents a shot or a bottle for just under $1.50 at Don the Beachcomber’s bar in Los Angeles.

Don the Beachcomber (©Shawn Fink)

Just a little over a decade later, the rum distilleries in America came on dry times.

“When WWII began, the government required the distillers to produce only surgical alcohol,” Remsberg adds. “There was no liquor being produced, and in Louisiana in particular, the distilleries just never came back.”

Until 1995, that is, when artist James Michalopoulos, perhaps best known for his highly collectable paintings of local architecture, founded Celebration Distillation and began producing the Old New Orleans Rum brand. Celebration’s small staff distills and distributes a white, an aged and a spiced rum, along with a 20-year blend (that the Beverage Testing Institute recently named the best rum in the U.S.) and carbonated rum-and-ginger bottled cocktails.

Celebration Distillation in New Orelans

While Celebration Distillation is certainly a perfect place to start learning about rum (daily tours offer visitors a look behind the scenes, along with an informative overview of rum’s history and, of course, a few complimentary cocktails), the place to get higher education on the subject is undoubtedly the city’s annual spirits conference, Tales of the Cocktail. Held each July, it’s a weeklong gathering of distillers, bartenders, authors, enthusiasts, chefs and journalists.

Rum is always a hot topic at the event, drawing national experts and local legends like Latitude 29 owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, aka “the Tiki Evangelist.”  

“Don the Beachcomber [who claimed to have invented the mai tai] was born in New Orleans, and he was a big fan of New Orleans’ rums,” says Berry. “A lot of his old recipes from around the 1930s call for Pontalba.

Pontalba Rum (©Shawn Fink)

“The best tropical drinks don’t have one rum,” he continues, “they have two or three types. You would never put three gins in a martini or three bourbons in an old-fashioned, but by blending rums, you get a body and character that is something no one spirit can create on its own.”

The same could be said for New Orleans.

 

SLIDESHOW: Charring Old New Orleans Rum barrels at Celebration Distillation

(All Images @Shawn Fink)

Jenny Adams
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