- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

HOUMA, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s rum history stretches back to the days of the colonial America.

The sugar cane-based spirits thread together the state’s proudest and darkest traditions, firmly rooting modern party culture into the fertile soil of the Mississippi River delta.

While the early rum distillation tradition completely died out nearly 100 years ago, local craft distilleries today have followed the example of the past, using locally sourced ingredients in their products.

Those products have produced international attention, garnering accolades in tasting contests and expanding their business over the last few years.

Rum has a turbulent history. The key ingredient in the distillation of rum is molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, which is inextricably tied to slavery in the United States and the Caribbean.

For hundreds of years farming sugar cane was an arduous task. Plantation owners in the early South sourced slave labor to develop and harvest the crop in a time when sugar was rare and valuable throughout much of the world.

Trey Litel, the president and co-founder of Louisiana Spirits, a Lacassine-based distillery that produces Bayou Rum, dug into the south Louisiana rum history before Bayou Rum’s 2013 release.

In the early days, Litel said plantation owners in southeast Louisiana began to distill their own crude rum, which the French called “tafia.”

These plantation owners were proud of their own brands of tafia, distilling it in large batches to entertain during parties in their homes, Litel said. Among them was John Burnside, the owner of the Houmas House Plantation near Gonzales.

As the sugar production industry became more sophisticated, small sugar mill operations began to pop up throughout southeast Louisiana. By 1850, there were over 1,200 mills in the state, Litel said.

Rather than throwing out the molasses, enterprising sugar mill owners invested in their own distillation equipment to make rum.

However, by the end of the Civil War, most of those rum stills and the mills in which they were housed had been destroyed by Union troops looking to hinder the South’s economic production.

“The north targeted Louisiana and the sugar industry specifically,” Litel said. “They knew that that was a soft spot in the Confederacy. So they completely demolished the sugar cane culture and the transportation system because the labor force was gone.”

The final blow, however, came during Prohibition. Although there were some isolated pockets of moonshiners, and the bayous of Terrebonne and Lafourche were used heavily by bootleggers during the height of Prohibition, the widespread distillation of rum in Louisiana ceased.

Even today, according to federal law, it is illegal to distill spirits without a license.

From an embattled past, the modern craft rum distillery revolution was born.

In the last five years several local rum labels, including Rougaroux Rum, distilled by Thibodaux’s Donner-Peltier Distillery, have begun to pop up throughout south Louisiana.

These distilleries use locally sourced cane molasses in their production, providing a flavor in their rum that is unique to the region.

Donner-Peltier gets its ingredients from Thibodaux-based Lafourche Sugars, which was co-founded by the family of Donner-Peltier co-owner Henry Peltier.

“We have a family sugar business. My son is, I guess, a fourth generation sugar farmer,” Peltier said. “This is not only part of the culture of our area, but it’s a part of the history of my family.”

Since their inception, both distilleries have enjoyed a strong reception locally and abroad.

Another Donner-Peltier co-founder, Beth Donner, said their first rum release, 2013’s Sugarshine “over-proofed” rum, has been a success on the bar scene.

“A lot of the bartenders and mixologists around the area and around New Orleans use it in a lot of cocktails. We’ve found it in a lot of menus in bars and restaurants,” Donner said.

Since this time in 2014, Donner said the distillery has seen a 50 percent increase in sales.

The rum has also been well received elsewhere, garnering silver, gold and double gold honors at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Beverage Tasting Institute and the World Spirits Awards

Garnering 64 awards in tasting competitions since 2013, Bayou Rum has also drawn interest from rum enthusiasts.

“So far people really like it. We’re all across the state and we’re also now available in seven states. We’re in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and we just launched up in Maryland,” Litel said.

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Information from: The Courier, http://www.houmatoday.com

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