Not the most rum, just the best rum
“Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, he was thinking of the Caribbean islands but today, you can get a bottle of rum traveling down the bayou instead of the ocean. Louisiana Spirits in Lacassine, Louisiana, produces Bayou Rum which it calls “The Spirit of Louisiana.”
And why not? Sugar cane has been grown in Louisiana since 1751. The distillery, the largest private label rum in the U.S., is a fun place to visit even if you don’t like rum. Lacassine is in the heart of Cajun County just a little east of Lake Charles. When you step into the visitors center/gift shop, you will be greeted with typical Louisiana hospitality by one of the clerks or possibly one of the co-owners of the distillery, brothers Trey and Tim Litel and their friend, Skip Cortese. This is a very hands-on business.
Skip met us and took us on the tour. He was a fountain of interesting information, giving us a good insight into a business that is both as old as Louisiana’s European culture and filled with the most advanced distilling technology. The first stop was the viewing room, where we watched a film that reminded us of sugar cane’s place in Louisiana’s culture. “Jesuit priests first brought sugar cane into south Louisiana in 1751, and it has been grown there ever since,” Skip pointed out.
We started in the bottling section, the actual end of the product, which starts at the loading dock and ends at the loading dock. The bottles are rinsed with rum,” Skip told us. “What a good sanitizer, and we don’t have to worry about cross-contamination down the line.”
According to Skip, for an alcohol to be “rum” it must be made from the sugar cane plant. It could be molasses or unrefined granulated sugar. “We use two products in our rum, molasses and unrefined granulated sugar. This will make better rum. Caribbean rum is made from molasses. We’re not going to make more rum than the Caribbean. Not going to happen,” he said.
Louisiana Spirits makes about 25,000 cases a year and is distributed in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and just recently in Canada. Skip led us from the fermenting tanks to the heart of the operation, the distiller.
The distilling tank is a thing of beauty in shining copper and commanding the space in the center of several stainless storage tanks. It brings to mind the old mountain stills, blended with high tech. Skip told us they are expecting another copper still within several weeks, so when you visit, there will be two of these beauties working hard to produce a fine spirit.
The new one is from Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky, which makes the stills for most of the big bourbon producers like Jim Beam. The difference is that these stills are “pot stills” used to make handmade smaller batches.
Jeff Murphy, the distiller, was busy at work when we stepped up to the still. Skip explained how the process works. “The still separates the alcohol from the remaining material, bringing the distiller’s beer from 8% or 9% by volume to 40%. percent. What remains is called the vinasse. We will send that off to a cattle food company.”
This is one of the things I really like about Bayou Rum — it is very “green.” It uses all Louisiana cane to make the rum, and the byproducts are not thrown on some garbage heap to pollute the earth. The rum goes through nine distillations altogether, bringing it up to about 90%. Then, they draw off the first alcohol called “heads,” which has poor flavor. When it reaches its optimum point, that is called the “heart” and this is what is used to make the rum. At the end of the distilling process, the alcohol again loses its flavor. This is referred to as the “tails.” Heads and tails are sold off to make fuel. Nothing wasted!
The heart that’s left is tested in an on-site lab to decide which type of rum it is best suited to make. Here is where the high tech pays off. Skip pointed out a small machine that, he says, “looks like a microwave and costs like a house”. It’s called a gas chromatograph and takes all the guesswork out of deciding which rum that batch of alcohol is best suited for.
Louisiana Spirits produces White Rum, Spiced Rum, Satsuma Rum and Bayou Select Barrel Reserve. The Bayou Select is a special blend, some of it dating to the earliest days of the company when it was still producing rum on a 10-gallon pot still. Bayou Select has been aged up to three years in charred oak bourbon barrels brought in from Kentucky. Skip explained that you cannot use a new barrel or your rum will taste woody and oaky.
I asked if rum has an equivalent of the “Angel’s Share” of bourbon. Skip assured us that just like bourbon, a portion of the rum is lost as it ages, about 10% the first year and three to five every year after.
There is a unique mural there which represents the “Spirit of Louisiana.” It was painted by Skip’s brother, Peter Cortese, depicting a rum-running operation set on a Louisiana bayou with a Cajun house, complete with a shining copper still. Set over the water on stilts is T-Boy, a colorful Cajun in a pirogue, setting out to deliver his rum. A figurine of the same T-Boy sits alongside the mural with a “no smoking” sign around his neck. That’s a good point since alcohol, including rum, is highly flammable.
The next stop was what we were all eagerly waiting for — the tasting bar. It’s separated from the gift shop by a wrought-iron fence, recycled like so much of the well-crafted shop with its exposed beams reclaimed from an ancient North Carolina textile mill, aged bricks and many touches of Cajun country.
We got to sample each of the rums. The basic White Rum was a pleasant surprise. It had much more flavor than the average “big name” rum and a nice fruity taste. The Spiced Rum was much stronger-tasting due to the spice, which is very present but not overpowering. It was hard for me to choose a favorite between the next two – the Satsuma Rum, which is a blend of rum and Satsuma, giving it almost the feeling of a cocktail, and Bayou Select, the three-year-old aged blend, which has a very smooth flavor.
I would have to agree with the way Skip summed it up when he explained the difference between Bayou Rum and a big-name rum like Captain Morgan: “It’s like a cake you buy at the grocery or one you make yourself. You know which will taste better.”
If you go
Tours are held Tuesday-Saturday at 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM, 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM, 3:00 PM and 4:00 PM. You must be there 15 minutes early to confirm you spot. Reservations are recommended. www.bayourum.com