Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Celebration of Old New Orleans Rum

New Orleans may be the cocktail capital of the United States.  So many cocktails were invented and are served in this historic city.  There are plenty of bars from which to choose when it comes to drinking the final cocktail product, but New Orleans also offers a place for visitors to see where the cocktail begins, in the distillation process.  Celebration Distillation, the creator of Old New Orleans Rum, provides tours of its New Orleans distillery so visitors can witness the artisanal spirit making process firsthand.

Old New Orleans Rum Spirits
Art surrounds Old New Orleans Rum, even on the inside of the bottle labels.
Old New Orleans Rum was founded by New Orleans artist James Michalopoulas in 1995.  Michalopoulas creates colorful paintings and sculptures and has been commissioned six times to create the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival poster.  His artwork surrounds the Old New Orleans Rum tasting room and also decorates the inside of the rum bottle labels, magnified by the liquid contained within.  Michalopoulas was inspired to go into the distilling business during his international travels when he saw someone making yeast in their backyard with fruit and vegetables.  He returned to New Orleans and collaborated with artists, brew masters, and engineers to create a local consumable work of art, rum.

Old New Orleans Rum Barrel Aging
Old New Orleans Rum barrel aging.
Rum was the alcohol of choice for the distillery because it can be made using Louisiana’s plentiful crop, sugarcane, keeping the product natural and local.  Michalopoulas partnered with Greg Nolan of Lafourche Sugars to make the fresh sugar cane syrup and blackstrap molasses used in Old New Orleans Rum.  This year Celebration Distillation will be straying from their strictly rum lineup with the release of their 20th anniversary sugarcane vodka.

Old New Orleans Rum is distilled in a 150-year-old cotton warehouse on Frenchmen Street.  The distillery is far outside of the tourist district, but Celebration Distillation makes it easy for travelers to visit the distillery by offering complimentary shuttle service from the French Quarter.  The distillery was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  A plaque in the distillery marks the waterline, which reached eight feet.  Because of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, a significant portion of their product was lost and barrels containing rum were confiscated because swabbing tests confirmed the outside of the barrels that had been floating on the flood waters were contaminated, even though the protected contents inside may have been left unharmed.  The distillery was closed for an entire year after Katrina, but is one of New Orleans' success stories as it opened again in the same preserved historic location.

Old New Orleans Rum Bottling
Bottling of Old New Orleans Rum.
A tour of the distillery starts with a welcome drink of iced tea and Old New Orleans Cajun Spice rum.  Then visitors are walked through the six step process of distilling.  Step one is making the wash, mixing gallons of blackstrap molasses with water and yeast.  The molasses moves through the lines to step two, fermentation, where the added yeast creates alcohol.  The alcohol then moves to step three, pot still distillation, which separates the alcohol into a vapor and creates a stronger bond when the alcohol returns to a more concentrated liquid state.  Step four, column still distillation, concentrates the alcohol even more and purifies the alcohol.  Here the alcohol is separated into four parts: foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails.  Old New Orleans Amber heads to step five, barrel aging, while the rest moves straight to step six, blending and bottling.

Column Still Distillation Product Tasting Old New Orleans Rum
Tasting the results of column still distillation.
Upon completion of the distillery tour guests return to the tasting room where they have the opportunity to taste the results of the distillation process.  Celebration Distillation currently produces four products.  Old New Orleans Crystal is a strong, sweetish white rum, and I don’t suggest drinking much of this rum straight.  Tasters have the option of adding simple syrup with lime juice to the white rum, creating a basic daiquiri and making the strong white rum easier to drink (just to toot my own horn, an idea they got from reading my article about our Kōloa Rum Company tasting).  Old New Orleans Amber, my favorite of the Celebration Distillation rums, is the white rum that has been aged.  The amber rum spends three years in charred American oak barrels which have been used once before to age Makers Mark, and the amber color is achieved using cooked-out molasses as a dye.  The spice of the Old New Orleans Cajun Spice is accomplished with a homemade infusion using cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne, clove, and ginger, perfect for adding to a glass of sweet tea.  The fourth product is not a spirit, but a drink mix.  Gingeroo is a carbonated mixture of ginger puree, cayenne, water, and rum.  If you enjoy ginger and strong flavors, you will enjoy Gingeroo.  The taste of ginger pops at the front of the mouth while the cayenne burns at the back of the throat, and the flavor is reminiscent of homemade gingersnaps.  After tasting, visitors have the option of purchasing some Old New Orleans Rum before departing.

During a trip to New Orleans, which can be filled with history, music, food, and excellent craft cocktails, an Old New Orleans Rum Tour is a fun addition to celebrate the newer history of New Orleans, the art of distilling artisanal spirits using local Louisiana sugarcane crops.

Thank you to Celebration Distillation for hosting our tour of the Old New Orleans Rum distillery and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Katherine Belarmino has been traveling for over ten years on a quest to see as much of the world as possible, experience new cultures, and sample other cuisines and libations. She also writes the travel blog Travel the World, which journals her world travels with her husband Romeo and seeks to encourage others to take the time to travel.