As the New Year looms, New Orleans once again hosts college football fans from across the nation who have arrived to cheer on their teams in the Sugar Bowl. Despite the importance of this contest, many of those fans (and even New Orleanians) forget that this game is named in honor of one of the most important crops in our state’s history.

Sugar solidified New Orleans’ place as one of the richest cities in the 19th century and even today our state is one of the top resources for research into the crop.

While I do have a sweet tooth, my favorite dividend of sugar production is something a little more golden: rum. Even though sugar has been grown in Louisiana commercially since the early 1800s, a New Orleans made rum has only been available since 1995, courtesy of an artist with a vision, James Michalopoulos, who dreamed of bringing rum production to the city.

Michalopoulos, best known for his paintings of shotgun houses, annually escapes the heat of August for the balmier climates of France. While there, he observed locals making small batches of brandy, and he returned to New Orleans in the early 1990s with distilling on the brain. He felt that there should be a rum distillery in a land so tied to its source, and within a few years, Old New Orleans Rum was born.

Old New Orleans Rum is the United States’ oldest rum distillery, one of the many facts I learned about it and its product while taking a tour of the facility. Visitors are greeted with a cocktail, then led through the entire process of rum-making.

It starts with the sourcing of molasses and cane juice from local farmers and ends with watching bottles get filled, labeled, sealed and ready for delivery. In between, you follow the molasses, which is first transformed into a fermented beverage, then distilled into a high-proof, unaged spirit.

Some of that spirit is modified to become Crystal Rum; some is aged in barrels and with time will acquire the signature golden color of the Amber Rum. The Cajun Spiced Rum is created from a variety of botanicals, which are loaded into what our tour guide described as “the biggest tea bag you’ll ever see” used to infuse the rum with a fiery kick.

Another of the distillery’s popular products is the Gingeroo, a fizzy, bottled cocktail tasting of fresh ginger and citrus. We learned that they are now using a new process to inject the CO2 into the drink, one invented by Michalopoulos in house. In fact, most of the machinery used to create Old New Orleans Rum products was constructed on-site to fit the exact needs of the distillery.

CEO Katie Darling notes that while some company owners might be hands-off when it comes to the day-to-day running of a factory, Michalopoulos is ever-present, either making improvements to equipment or inventing new flavors. She remarked that “many of the flavors were created organically and came out of James experimenting.” She also wryly observed that whenever Michalopoulos has a new idea, even if it seems a bit odd, she goes with it.

“James is usually right. In fact, often he is ahead of trends,” she said. The biggest example of this foresight is the distillery itself, which opened long before the rest of the country got caught up in the craft distilling movement.

It is this attention to detail and willingness to explore flavors without limitations that keeps Old New Orleans Rum from getting, well, old. It is interesting to note that while the sugar industry in the state has become less of a major agricultural player, the craft distilling industry (and rum industry in particular) seems to be on the upswing.

We ended the tour as we began, with a drink. Several, actually. All of the products are available for sample and purchase. Most of the folks on my tour were out-of-town visitors and while it was odd to be in the midst of the tourists, it was nice to overhear their appreciation for something so delicious made in my city. Old New Orleans rum celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. Let’s hope for many more.

Tours TO TRY

Old New Orleans Rum

Samples of each product and a tour of how the rum gets made.

Tours daily

Donner Peltier

Worth the drive to Thibodaux, visitors can sample Oryza, its signature vodka made from Louisiana rice, as well as its Rougaroux Rum.

Tours 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, or by appointment for larger groups

Abita Brewery

The most corporate of the tours (there’s a video explaining a lot of the brewing process), it’s still worth it to taste all of the beers, even those not in stores yet. Make sure someone is the designated driver to get you back home.

Tours 2 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, and at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday