“Who enjoys cocktails more than New Orleans?” asks Kirk Coco, founder of NOLA Brewing Co. and the new NOLA Distilling Co. “I can’t think of anybody.”
Coco launched the popular NOLA Brewing Co. beer line eight years ago; now, he’s turning his attention to spirits, outfitting an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in the 3700 block of Tchoupitoulas Street (formerly Marlene’s Eight Ball) several blocks from his beer tasting room.
NOLA Distilling Co. aims to produce its first batch of Louisiana-sourced, sweet potato vodka this summer. A tasting room overlooking the stills is slated to open this fall. The distillery will also manufacture gin and whiskey, though the latter requires about five to six years of aging.
Coco notes that while New Orleans always has been associated with alcohol, the city tends to be better at consuming and selling than producing spirits. Until now, Old New Orleans Rum has enjoyed the lion’s share of the local market and distillery tour trade.
That’s about to change.
Meet the makers
Much in the way that small vineyards began to dot the Napa Valley in the 1970s and microbreweries swept the Northwest in the 1980s and ’90s, the number of American distilleries is rising — centered around cities and catering to craft enthusiasts, not moonshine sippers.
With recently passed state legislation allowing for tasting rooms and restaurants, several New Orleans distillers are about to hang out their signs.
Coco and NOLA Distilling Co.’s chief operating officer, Andy Kutcher, say the local angle is key to understanding the trend toward metropolitan distilleries. Consumers want to meet makers face to face, and craft enthusiasts also appreciate flavor profiles drawn from distinct regional ingredients.
And while Coco and Kutcher expect the number of New Orleans distilleries to rise within the year, they see room for multiple brands, each with its own niche.
‘Smelling the mash’ at Bootleg Spirits
One aiming for a decidedly larger niche is Bootleg Spirits. Co-founder Gordon Stewart began laying plans for the distillery over four years ago.
The Glasgow native recalls “smelling the mash” from the distillery giant Port Dundas as he walked to school. Like Coco, Stewart ran a brewery and sees distilling as both a new challenge and a savvy business model in what he and Bootleg director of sales Cameron Perry call “a city of cocktails.”
Stewart says Bootleg’s goal is to produce a range of world-class vodkas and whiskeys that will “marry the best of American and Scottish traditions.”
Stewart, like Coco, is awaiting Bootleg’s most precious piece of equipment: the still. The machines are costly and take considerable time to ship from overseas.
Hearing the distillers speak of their impending arrival is a bit like listening to expectant fathers pace outside the delivery room. An arduous permitting process also creates delays.
Like his fellow disillers, Stewart sees Bootleg Spirits as helping to revive the city’s once thriving, pre-Prohibition spirits industry. However, in contrast to NOLA Distilling Co, Bootleg intends to position itself as a national brand from inception.
Stewart expects to produce his first vodka by late summer and cites a production goal of 150,000 cases annually. It’s a scale, he notes, that’s possible only with a very large space. Indeed, Bootleg’s warehouse, a former coffee roasting plant off the Tulane Avenue corridor, measures a whopping 24,000 square feet; the soaring ceilings are needed to accommodate the 36-foot column still required for the quantity and vodka purity levels Stewart is after.
“If you like to drink local, ask for local”
On the opposite end of the size spectrum is Atelier Vie, the one outfit here that’s already open. Since 2012, Jedd Haas has run a one-man operation out of the Art Egg studios, a complex tucked away off Earhart Boulevard. Currently, Atelier Vie focuses on four spirits: a pair of gins and absinthes — the only absinthe currently made in Louisiana.
But don’t let Atelier Vie’s diminutive size fool you; Haas’ four labels have won medals in national tasting competitions, and Bon Apetit recently chose to include his Euphrosine Gin No. 9 Barrel-Finished Reserve among its top urban distillery picks.
While most consider gin too bitter for stand-alone drinking, Haas refers to his Barrel-Finished Reserve as a “sipping gin.” The Reserve’s amber color is the result of eight months aging in whiskey barrels. With notes of vanilla and cinnamon, it offers a complexity not generally found in gin.
Even Atelier Vie’s clear, more standard version, Euphrosine Gin No. 9, lacks any head shivering bitterness and delivers clean herbal and citrus flavors. Such artisanal distinctions help fuel the demand for niche distilling.
Haas’ absinthe lines come in two varieties: Toulouse Verte, which uses local wormwood and evokes a traditional French pastis; and Toulouse Rouge, whose vibrant flavor and color come from hibiscus blossoms.
Around town, Atelier Vie’s spirits have won favor with such high profile restaurants as Broussard’s, Brennan’s and Bayona, as well as several bars. Whole Foods on Broad Street also stocks the line. Haas opens his distillery to the public for weekend tastings and bottle sales.
Like his peers in the growing local industry, Haas says distilling makes business sense.
“We’re in the birthplace of the cocktail and surrounded by creative bartenders,” he says. But he’s also quick to point out that small producers can struggle to compete against the national distributors.
And while artisanal spirits may be the rage, “there’s a finite amount of shelf space.” Haas’ plea: If you like to drink local, ask for local.
A microdistillery restaurant
Finally, something a little different: Lula, New Orleans’ first microdistillery and restaurant. Restaurateur and chef Jess Bourgeois and business partner Bear Caffery expect to open the 10,000-square-foot space this fall.
The space on St. Charles Avenue — once Halpern’s furniture store — is well positioned to catch the streetcar tourist trade.
Bouregois points to the exposed beams overhead and the sizable space to the front of the building’s facade.
Lula will offer indoor and outdoor seating as well as a long bar, and a sealed glass wall will keep the copper stills in view.
Another interesting twist from Lula is their spirits will be gluten-free. Caffery was recently diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease. As a result, Lula will use Louisiana sugarcane as the base for its vodka, rum and gin.
Lula doesn’t intend to distribute its spirits but to produce only for in-house use — both as the basis for mixed and draught cocktails and as ingredients for menu items like boudin with spiced rum glaze.
Bourgeois says his Louisiana “country” menu is inspired by his hometown of Donaldsonville and will include rabbit and quail.
Given the continued success of the city’s gastropubs, the microdistillery restaurant seems like an idea New Orleans might have hit upon years ago.
However, Bourgeois notes that the “restaurant and microdistillery” designation has been legal in Louisiana only since last year when the state Legislature passed LA House Bill 233.
Bourgeois was inspired to help craft the bill after a recent ski trip to Park City, Utah. There he saw distillery restaurants in action. “I thought, why don’t we have this? It seems like a perfect fit for New Orleans.”
1001 S. Broad St. (in the Art Egg Studios)
What: Absinthe and gin
Open for bottle sales Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
3918 Gravier St.
What: Vodka and whiskey
Projected opening: summer-fall. Future plans include a tasting room.
1530 Saint Charles Ave.
What: a microdistillery restaurant, with Louisiana sugarcane vodka, gin and rum
Projected opening: fall
NOLA Distilling Co.
3715 Tchoupitoulas St.
What: Locally sourced vodka, gin and whiskey
Projected opening: vodka, summer; tasting room, fall