Louisiana's history — and its sugar cane — inspire growing rum industry

Andrew Lohfeld, co-founder and distiller at Roulaison Distilling Co. in New Orleans, tests a bottle of rum. (Courtesy of Roulaison)
Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

When Olivia Stewart sips the agricole-style rum her family makes at Three Roll Estate distillery in Baton Rouge, it takes her back to her childhood. Agricole-style rum, made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice and typically produced in the French West Indies, preserves the fresh, grassy flavor of sugar cane. Stewart was raised snacking on fresh sugar cane in the fields that her family has farmed for more than a century.

“I grew up in these fields. I live on these fields. I see the cane grow every day,” she said.

Rum is made from sugar. And Louisiana is one of the three states, along with Florida and Texas, that produce cane sugar. Many distilleries in the state, including Three Roll, Roulaison, Old New Orleans Rum and Bayou Rum, have made the spirit their mission. Producing rum connects them to the state’s history. And being down the road from their sugar mills means they know personally who makes their sugar.

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The United States, outside of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, has never produced much rum. The oldest rum distillery in the nation, Celebration Distillery in New Orleans, only opened in 1995. Rum making, however, is on the rise.

Sugar cane is harvested in Louisiana for Cheramie Rum.

“You do have an increasing number of distilleries that are run by people who love rum,” said Will Hoekenga, who publishes the American Rum Report newsletter.

Most rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar production. A distillery must be close to the cane fields to use fresh pressed juice, which begins to ferment soon after it’s processed.

Cheramie Rum, which launched in December, is located in New Orleans and uses fresh cane juice from a mill two hours away in Franklin, Louisiana.

“We are committed to this raw cane juice,” said Cheramie’s director of operations Jason Zeno. “We can do that because we’re here in Louisiana.”

Louisiana distilleries that use molasses for their rum also benefit from the state’s abundance of fields and sugar mills.

New Orleans’ Roulaison Distilling Co., the most respected rum producer in the state, uses second strike molasses, while most distilleries use commodity blackstrap molasses.

“It’s got a lot higher sugar content and a much lower ash content,” said Roulaison’s co-founder and head distiller Andrew Lohfeld.

Lafourche Sugars in Thibodaux, Louisiana, is willing to set aside those molasses for Roulaison because of the personal relationship they have developed. It probably doesn't hurt that the mother of Roulaison’s other founder takes cookies to the workers at Lafourche made from the sugar they mill.

Porchjam Distillation in New Orleans makes Charamie rum.

Stewart of Three Roll Estate can see a day when Louisiana is filled with rum distilleries. She can imagine tourists coming to the state to travel a “rum trail” like they do for bourbon in Kentucky.

“We’re already taking those first small steps to make it easier for small distillers to open,” she said.

More rum distilleries could create a new industry, bringing jobs to rural corners of Louisiana. It could also support the mills and sugar farms that have been part of the state for generations.

Planter's Punch

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry of New Orleans' Latitude 29 makes his version of this tropical classic with chilled tea. Jamaican rums are dark and bold, so for a Southern-made substitute look for a flavorful rum with age.

Ingredients

Tablespoon white sugar

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1-1/2 ounce black tea or orange pekoe tea, chilled

2 ounces dark Jamaican rum

Instructions

Dissolve sugar in lime juice at bottom of a tall glass. Add tea and rum, fill with crushed ice and swizzle. The ice will settle after swizzling, so add more to fill. Garnish (or don’t) as you see fit.

Rum Basil Swizzle

A barrel of rum is sampled at Roulaison Distilling Co. in New Orleans. (Courtesy of Roulaison)

Chris Hannah won a James Beard Award as a bartender at Arnaud's French 75 Bar in New Orleans. Now he co-owns Jewel of the South, where he makes a swizzle with Three Roll rum from Baton Rouge.

Ingredients

1 ounce Three Roll white rum

1 ounce rum agricole

1 ounce lime

1/2 ounce agave nectar

3 basil leaves

2 ounces ginger beer

Instructions

Add rums, lime, agave nectar and basil leaves to a cocktail shaker and shake with ice. Add the ginger beer to an ice-filled Collins glass and strain ingredients from cocktail shaker over the ginger beer. Garnish with basil.

Bartender and co-owner of Jewel of of the South in New Orleans pours Three Roll Estate rum, which is distilled in Baton Rouge from Louisiana grown and milled sugar cane.

Boukman Punch

Nicholas Jarrett created this cocktail for Peychaud's, a New Orleans French Quarter bar named in honor of Antoine Peychaud, who created the bitters essential to making a Sazerac cocktail. Peychaud's family fled the Haitian revolution when he was a small child, and this punch serves as recognition of his Caribbean roots and is named for Dutty Boukman, who initiated the Haitian revolution.

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounce Ak Zanj 8yo Haitian Rhum, or other Jamaican rum

1/2 ounce PM Spirits Bas Armagnac VS, or other Armagnac

3/4 ounce lime juice

3 ounce cinnamon syrup (see note below)

Peychaud's bitters

Mint leaves

Instructions

Put crushed ice into a cocktail shaker then add rum, Armagnac, lime juice and cinnamon syrup. Shake briefly for 2 to 3 seconds, then dump shaker contents into double Old-Fashioned glass. "Paint" Peychaud's bitters across the surface, mound fresh crushed ice on top and garnish lavishly with mint. Serve with two straws.

To make cinnamon syrup: Crack six cinnamon sticks and add to a quart of water. Heat to just below boiling, reduce to simmer, cover and let simmer for 15 minutes. Strain cinnamon, measure the remaining liquid, and add an equal amount of white sugar. Whisk to dissolve and let cool before using.