Inside America's Oldest Running Rum Distillery

Old New Orleans Rum being filled on a conveyor belt.

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.

Barrels in a warehouse at Celebration Distillation. Celebration Distillation is the oldest operating rum distillery in America. Photos by Martine Boyer.

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.

Old New Orleans rum is poured into plastic shot glasses.The joy of visiting Celebration Distillation is in tasting the Old New Orleans Rum, which is a prime showcase for one of Louisiana's primary crops, sugar cane.

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.

Old New Orleans rums bottles are on shelves. Simplicity is the secret to excellence for Old New Orleans Rum.

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.

An Old New Orleans rum distillation machine. Most of the process happens inside of large steel tanks (like this one).

Molasses is in a Mason jar. Sugar cane is pressed several times to create molasses.

A copper line pot holds the molasses in the first phase of distillation. The molasses is then pumped into a PS1 copper line pot for the first stage of distillation.

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.

The PS2 machine where rum is distilled at Celebration Distillation.After the first phase of distillation, the low wine is transferred to the PS2 to be distilled at a higher temperature.

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.”

Finely ground charcoal is being scooped from a barrel. Charcoal is used to filter the high wine.

High wine is charcoal-filtered to remove the impurities and polish the rum; in other words, to refine it to perfect flavor.

Oak barrels hold Old New Orleans Rum. Old New Orleans Rum is aged in oak barrels.

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 of Celebration Distillation. The bottling room is where most of the action is.

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 bottles are filled.
Old New Orleans Rum coming off of a conveyor belt.

The lids are placed on Old New Orleans Rum bottles.

Old New Orleans Rum is prepared for packing into boxes.

The rum is bottled, capped, labeled, and packed into boxes for distribution.

Celebration Distillation warehouse.

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.