Inside America's Oldest Running Rum Distillery
Renowned New Orleans painter and sculptor James Michalopoulos began building small test stills for distilling rum in the Bywater and Lower Seventh Ward areas some 20 years ago. His experiments led to the creation of Celebration Distillation, and in 1995, he purchased a 150-year old cotton warehouse to house his distillery. Celebration Distillation now proudly produces three varieties of Old New Orleans Rum.
Despite being flooded by eight feet of water during Hurricane Katrina and enduring a massive renovation to get back in working order, Celebration Distillation is in its 20th year, and holds the title as the oldest operating rum distillery in America.
Rum begins as sugar cane and, as the second largest cane producing state in the country, what better way to showcase a local Louisiana product than through the distillation of rum? The process itself is simple: sugar cane becomes molasses, which, through a fermentation process, becomes rum, which is then aged to the desired flavor.
In the case of Old New Orleans Rum, simplicity is key to quality and flavor. They incorporate locally sourced molasses from LaFourche Sugars in Thibodaux, repurposed dairy manufacturing equipment used to build custom tanks and stills, and American oak whiskey barrels from the likes of Jack Daniels, Maker’s Mark and Four Roses. Celebration Distillation is one of only three distilleries in the country that use repurposed machinery.
PS1 — a copper line pot — is the first pot still in which molasses is mixed with water, yeast, and nutrients and left to ferment for about two days until it yields an ideal alcohol content of 10%. This is called “low wine.” Three fermentations are run through PS1 over the course of a week, one fermentation at a time.
These three fermentations of low-wine are then collected and transferred to PS2 to get distilled at a higher temperature in order to produce a higher content alcohol, similar to moonshine. This product then becomes “high wine.”
High wine is charcoal-filtered to remove the impurities and polish the rum; in other words, to refine it to perfect flavor.
The rum is then blended with ionized water to 80 proof, and transferred to oak barrels to age from anywhere from three to fifteen years. Blended rums, such as the Gingeroo or Cajun Spice, are blended for flavor directly after ionization and then transferred to oak barrels to age.
The fermentation tanks are the heart of the operation, quietly ticking away, while the bottling room is where most of the physical activity happens.
The rum is bottled, capped, labeled, and packed into boxes for distribution.
Tucked into the sleepier, and less visited, side of Frenchman Street, Celebration Distillation may be a bit off the beaten path, but it's well worth the journey.