New Orleans and alcohol are synonymous for many people; however, it's more than just a tool for releasing inhibitions on a weekend night. Louisiana has a proud history of distilling alcohols of every sort, and with a renewed sense of the values of craft beers, wines, and liquors, local companies are distilling alcohols that are sure to be hits with those who take their good-time spirits seriously.
Classic New Orleans liquors and cocktails, perfect for the new liquors being created, are coming back into style today. For instance, the Sazerac has been named the official cocktail of New Orleans. Amy Preske, PR Manager of the Sazerac Company, says, "Herbsaint, Peychaud's Bitters and Sazerac are extremely popular both inside the state of Louisiana and out, as bartenders are going back to classic cocktails. The reemergence of other classic cocktails, such as the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan, has also boosted sales of our Peychaud's Bitters." The story of Sazerac begins almost 200 years ago. In the 1830s, Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud used his medicinal and mixology knowledge to create a popular beverage that eventually became the Sazerac cocktail: a mix of absinthe, strong herb liquor still produced under the name Peychaud's Bitters, and brandy. The drink became popular at establishments like the Sazerac Coffee House in Exchange Alley. Owner Sewell Taylor named the bar and drink after a European brandy he imported. The business was eventually bought by Thomas Handy in 1869, who acquired the rights to Peychaud's Bitters in 1873, and bottled Sazerac with rye whiskey. Handy's secretary, C.J. O'Reilly, helped him form the Sazerac Company and bottled liquors for many decades until Prohibition.
Absinthe was famously outlawed in 1912, and then Prohibition swept the country on January 16 th , 1920. Prohibition did little to curb alcohol consumption, and was repealed on December 5 th , 1933; Americans were free to drink liquor again, except for absinthe. However, New Orleanian J. M. Legendre created a similarly flavored legal liquor to make up for the loss, and Herbsaint was officially released after the repeal. Sazerac ultimately bought out Legendre's liquor in 1949.
The Sazerac Company still owns and produces these local liquors, as well as other well-known national brands, including Fireball Whisky, Monte Alban Mezcal, and Taaka Vodka. The Sazerac Company maintains local administrative headquarters, but the liquors are distilled in Kentucky and Virginia. Preske says, "Sazerac has been affiliated with New Orleans since 1869, and we consider New Orleans home. New Orleans has had a long relationship with alcohol, and we even have evidence of our distillery in Kentucky shipping whiskey in barrels down the river to New Orleans as early as 1812."
"I love them all and drink them all, as frequently as I can get away with," exclaims Celebration Distilleries manager Parker Schonekas. Celebration Distilleries, which produces the popular Old New Orleans Rum (ONOR) and new beverage Gingeroo, was begun by the celebrated artist James Michalopoulos in the mid-90s. Schonekas explains, "Gingeroo [is] made with ONOR, but under a different brand. It's building a large, passionate fan base. The reason James Michalopoulos set the company up this way was to have more flexibility with product changes and producing a wider variety of products. There were five or six different brand names for the rums produced between the years 1999 and 2006. James is still the owner of the company, and is actively involved with our production experiments, R&D, and the creative side of our marketing efforts." Celebration Distilleries is open for tours on most days of the week, and many of the patrons are local. Schonekas says, "Approximately 15,000 people will come through the distillery in 2013. This is a small percentage of the number of tourists and locals in our beautiful city, but this number has grown by around 100% in both 2011 and 2012. The majority of the marketing comes from our consumers; they demand [the liquors'] placement in the bars, restaurants and retail outlets."
Jedd Haas, the founder of a new distillery called Atelier Vie, with an ethos of keeping it local, uses the tours of his facility to sell bottles of his product straight to the public—this is allowed by legislation signed in May 2012. Haas explains, "We had some distillery bottle sale hours, and the response was far, far beyond our wildest expectations. It's indisputable that there is an interest in and consumption of alcoholic beverages in Louisiana and, in particular, New Orleans. It's kind of one of the things that led us to starting this distillery. Although there is this gigantic consumption here, very little is actually produced here. We're working to rectify that balance. We're working hard with our do-it-yourself attitude to bring great spirits to New Orleans, and we look forward to many years ahead."
Two more new distilleries also have a home-grown focus, especially Donner- Peltier Distilleries, based in Thibodaux, which uses the sugarcane grown in the fi eld in which the distillery sits to make its Sugarshine and Full Moon Dark rums. They also use rice grown in Crowley to make their Oryza vodka. Similarly, Louisiana Spirits in Lacassine, Louisiana, will be open for business this spring. The rum distillery will use Louisiana-grown products for a line of rums that they are striving to make available for purchase at the distillery and around the state this year. Old New Orleans Rum Although there is an abundance of distilleries coming into existence, being legally allowed to sell liquor in Louisiana is not easy. For instance, Atelier Vie was founded in 2011, but was only able to begin selling their fi rst alcohol, Buck Twenty Five Vodka, after mid-2012. Jedd Haas elucidates, "We just got our fi rst label approval about three months ago. At the distillery, we have what we call the Wall of Fame: a large frame that has eighteen different pieces of paper from the many government agencies that regulate us. There's more than eighteen pieces, but that's all that could fi t into the frame right now." Manufacturing and selling absinthe, one of the spirits that New Orleans is well-known for (and which was made legal again in 2007), is even harder. Haas explains, "It's even more complex than your typical spirit. Most spirits require what's called a COLA—a certificate of label approval from the federal government. In the case of absinthe, it also requires a Formula Approval, in which you have to send them the formula and a sample bottle of the product that they test in their lab to make sure it's okay. Then, if it passes - Jedd Haas, Founder, Atelier Vie all those tests, we can apply for a label approval. It's a months-long process under the best circumstances. It took about fi ve months from start to fi nish."
Spirit-swilling customers are enjoying locally produced alcohols and requesting that more and more bars and stores keep them on the shelf, and these distilleries have the impetus to create more varieties and fl avors for drinkers to take pleasure in and consume regularly. Atelier Vie released its 136- proof red absinthe, colored with hibiscus fl owers, on Prohibition Repeal Day on December 5 th , 2012, and is the fi rst absinthe produced in the city since that time, but they want to make more than just that. Haas says, "We have some white absinthe and traditional green absinthe coming up next. Those are both in the pipeline with the feds, but the government is always fond of throwing curveballs at us, so there's no telling exactly when that will take place. But we're optimistic that we can have those out early next year." you might even see some old friends being produced locally once again. Amy Preske says, "[Sazerac] would very like to have a micro-distilling operation in the French Quarter at some point in the future."
One new company recently made the move to the New Orleans metro area from New york City to produce craft bitters in its birthplace. Founded by Janet and Avery Glasser, Bittermen's Bitters has been making herbal liquors like Burlesque Bitters, Peppercake Gingerbread Bitters, and Hellfi re Habanero Shrub since 2007. The Glassers contend that they will be making a name for their brand locally, especially during this year's Tales of the Cocktail.
Craft liquors and intricate cocktails are coming into fashion: drink makers prefer using mixers that enhance the fl avor of the alcohol, and exhibitions of the trade go on around town year-round. you can learn everything about the history and art of cocktails during the annual Tales of the Cocktail, or see a history of specialty drinks at the Cocktail Museum, soon to open in the brand-new Southern Food and Beverage Museum on Oretha C. Haley Boulevard. The next time you're out, have a drink or two with local liquor.