Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler — How New Orleans is Forging the … – Michael Kiser


You hear the music of a jazz band floating on a breeze as you go wandering after dark. Though the streets are lined with bars, there’s almost as much activity out in the open. Maybe it’s the moist heat in the air, but there’s something about New Orleans that compels you to have a cocktail in hand as you explore. Whether you’re drinking al fresco like this, at a historical hotel bar, or at a neighborhood joint, you’re sure to find a good time here—and an even better beverage. 
“People in New Orleans have always wanted to drink. The French are pretty famous for their libations. They planted tobacco crops because they wanted to smoke, and they made sure there were good drinks around at all times. You definitely have to give the credit to the French for the mega cocktail culture,” says Fred Minnick, spirits expert and bestselling author of books such as Rum Curious: The Indispensable Tasting Guide to the World’s Spirit and Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey
As bartender Ryan Hughes tells it, decadence is still a defining element of New Orleans’ drinks scene today. Hughes began his career in the industry five years ago in Jackson, Mississippi before relocating to New Orleans to work at craft cocktail and Champagne bar Effervescence. Located in the French Quarter, Effervescence has a relatively high-end focus that contrasts with the kinds of bars that Hughes describes as being centered on “partying, quick, high-volume, rum and Coke, and beers.” But despite the difference in ambiance, they’re all united by joyful excess.
“I drink a lot—I’m a bartender in New Orleans,” Hughes says with a laugh. “I have gone to a wide array of places. Effervescence is special in that there aren’t that many nice craft cocktail bars that you can easily go to that are reasonably priced. I really enjoy the clientele. I’ve worked in gay bars and chain restaurants, but this is a place where I feel most able to explore my craft. It’s more about creating an experience and providing a service rather than a bottom line—which I think is a really commendable thing.” 
New Orleans is the birthplace of many classic drinks, from the Sazerac and the Vieux Carré to Brandy Milk Punch and the Ramos Gin Fizz. As much as the city’s cocktail culture takes place behind rarefied doors, it also spills out into the fresh air. “Because there aren’t any open container laws down here, you can take a drink out into the street,” says Erik Morningstar, head distiller at the city’s Seven Three Distilling Co. “There are wonderful cocktail bars here that are on par with the best in the world. It’s the stereotypical frozen daiquiri world or you can have these amazing craft cocktails, along with amazing food, of course. Everything is very easy and very relaxed, but also extremely high-quality.”
“It’s a city with a world-class cocktail and bar scene,” adds Eileen Bivalacqua, co-founder of Seven Three Distilling. “Not bad considering our population is a small fraction of New York or London or Singapore. We consider ourselves so fortunate to live in a city with such an outsized cultural footprint. The music, the art, the food, and of course the drinks—it’s magical.”
In 1964, Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.” But before there was whiskey, there was rum. As early as the 1700s, the two major rum centers for colonial America were Massachusetts, which had between 60 to 70 rum distilleries, and Rhode Island, which had 30. “If you really want to dial into what the true American spirit is, it’s probably rum,” Minnick says. “As a country, before we were formed, we were drinking a lot more rum than after we were a country.” Although rum’s U.S. history is tied to the East Coast, it’s the molasses—rum’s base ingredient—that has its origins in the South, specifically Louisiana. “Molasses was really special to Louisiana. They were world-famous for their molasses.” 
Eventually, the balance tipped towards whiskey. “The U.S. penalized rum distillers because they tariffed the molasses they were buying,” says Minnick. “There just wasn’t enough production coming out of Louisiana and places like that to kind of fill in the gaps. So, they’d steeply tariff the molasses to open the road for whiskey distillers because the whiskey distillers were connected to the farmers and the farmers were basically connected to the feeding of the communities. So, they looked at rum as a bit of an enemy for growing in the United States of America because it was connected to the English.”
It’s impossible to tell the story of rum—and molasses and sugarcane production—without acknowledging its darker histories. Rum reminds of the brutality of British empire, the triangle trade that enslaved West Africans and brought them to sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and sugarcane’s notoriously vicious labor practices. Those practices were also replicated in Louisiana’s early industry.
“In 1795, Étienne de Boré, a New Orleans sugar planter, granulated the first sugar crystals in the Louisiana Territory,” writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad in a piece for the New York Times’ 1619 Project. “With the advent of sugar processing locally, sugar plantations exploded up and down both banks of the Mississippi River.” This boom of sugar plantations was due to the “abundantly rich alluvial soil, combined with the technical mastery of seasoned French and Spanish planters from around the cane-growing basin of the Gulf and the Caribbean — and because of the toil of thousands of enslaved people.”
The uptick in the arrival of French planters and their enslaved sugar workers in Louisiana was in part the result of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ successful revolution to secure Haiti’s independence from France. “Within five decades, Louisiana planters were producing a quarter of the world’s cane-sugar supply,” writes Muhammad. “During her antebellum reign, Queen Sugar bested King Cotton locally, making Louisiana the second-richest state in per capita wealth.”
These days, rum is not the first spirit that many would reflexively associate with New Orleans. But within the last six years, the city, and Louisiana as a whole, has seen a small influx in the number of distilleries focused on rum as a key part of their portfolios, and which are ushering in a new chapter in the spirit’s history. Among the distilleries forging new paths for local rum is the New Orleans-based Seven Three Distilling Co. 
“Louisiana is such a massive producer of sugarcane. Given our access to the fresh sugarcane and molasses, it makes sense for strong Louisiana rum traditions to emerge, and you’re starting to see that,” says Seven Three’s general manager, Tristan Johnson. “We’re not the only producers of it here in the state. Most distilleries in Louisiana have a rum in their repertoire, if not their entire repertoire. It’s very much the spirit you see down here. It’s very exciting to be part of what’s an emerging American rum tradition—a Louisiana rum tradition—and helping to shape that.” 
Husband-and-wife co-founders Sal and Eileen Bivalacqua launched Seven Three Distilling in 2015. “It’s hard not to find inspiration in New Orleans, especially when libations are involved. The city has had a thriving bar and cocktail scene practically since the Sazerac was first invented, but the distillation community here is comparatively young,” says Eileen. 
The distillery gets its name from the 73 neighborhoods of New Orleans. All of Seven Three’s spirits are named after local districts, such as Irish Channel Whiskey, Gentilly Gin, Black Pearl Rum, and more. 
Seven Three’s Head Distiller, Erik Morningstar, trained under the late renowned whiskey distiller, Dave Pickerell. “It was an amazing experience. He had such a depth of knowledge working with whiskey. I get most of my spirit-making chops from Dave.” Morningstar got his start working for a small distillery in his home state of Michigan before eventually relocating, at the end of 2016, to New Orleans to help with Seven Three’s launch. 
“Having the background with Dave Pickerell, rum was very new to me. I didn’t have supreme self-confidence, but I also thought, ‘How hard could this be? It’s molasses, water, and yeast—and that’s pretty much it.’ As with most things, it turned out to be a lot harder than it first appeared. In order to get a really robust, flavorful rum, it’s a lot more moving pieces there,” Morningstar reflects.
Having access to fresh molasses no doubt sets Louisiana rums apart. Morningstar explains the strenuous process of creating Black Pearl to me. He starts with blackstrap molasses. “If you’re familiar with the process of making sugar, you start with sugarcane juice and boil it down and agitate it at the same time you’re boiling it, and that helps the sugar to crystallize.” The crystallized sugar is then removed before it’s boiled again. More crystallized sugar is removed and voila, you get blackstrap molasses. “We use the first boil, so it’s closer to sugarcane juice. It still has a robust flavor like a blackstrap molasses rum, but it’s a little bit more nuanced, with a grassy note to it; but it still has some of those deeper flavors from the fruit notes you’d come to expect from rum.”
Black Pearl is an approachable rum that certainly serves as an accessible entry point for those new to the spirit. Its alluringly sweet, ripe banana aroma is an immediate draw. The palate is a welcoming blend of the things I loved about my childhood: fruity rock candy and airy cotton candy. The slight heat on the finish gives way to a hint of grassiness. Black Pearl can be sipped chilled on its own, or in a spirit-forward cocktail.
Recently, Hughes and the Effervescence team included Black Pearl Rum in several drinks on their fall cocktail menu. “We took the concept of a daiquiri and Mai Tai and fused them. We used a cherry syrup, a honey grappa—which you don’t see in a lot of cocktails—amaretto, and some lime, and fresh ginger that we juiced ourselves.” 
Local sourcing underlies Effervescence’s approach, which is part of the reason Seven Three held particular appeal. “That’s why we wanted to use Seven Three Distillery—because they’re local. We like to focus on and support local businesses. It’s something very close to the owner’s heart,” Hughes says. It helps that Black Pearl, while distinctive, is also versatile. “I always think that a spirit is only as good as what you can really mix it with, and Seven Three’s Black Pearl Rum is easy enough to mix with a wide variety of things,” Hughes says.
Most of the cane that is used for the distillery’s Black Pearl Rum is grown along Bayou Lafourche (pronounced “La-foosh”) in both Assumption and Lafourche Parishes. The distillery has a direct relationship with the Robichaux family and their farm in Labadieville, and has worked with them to source fresh sugarcane. The cane stalks grow over 12 feet tall, and Morningstar describes standing in the midst of the field at harvest time as a humbling experience. “Feeling so small when looking into the vastness of the freshly cut fields extending to the horizon with your back to the impenetrable walls of uncut cane,” he says. “There are waves of frenetic activity to cut the cane and transport it to the mill, before it spoils.” It’s a short harvest season, typically falling at the end of the year.
The distillery’s proximity to the fields and the sugar mills gives it the opportunity to utilize different grades of molasses as soon as they’re made. Distillers can even choose where and how their preferred cane is grown and processed—a primary advantage for Louisiana distillers (and drinkers). “The craft distilling scene isn’t as established here as it is in other places, but we have the potential to do great things, and I am excited to see what the future holds for our industry here in Louisiana,” Morningstar says.
The onslaught of the pandemic caught everyone off-guard, especially those in the spirits industry. However, the Seven Three team’s resilience is thanks in part to timing and benevolence. “We certainly started with trying to build a strong base here in New Orleans and Louisiana. We donate everywhere we can. It’s about building a brand that’s meaningfully connected to New Orleans, our community,” says Johnson.
One way the distillery has helped out is by producing hand sanitizer.  “Like everyone, we’re taking it day-by-day. We began very quickly into pivoting into hand sanitizer production, which is what many of the distilleries did,” Johnson says. “That was tremendously helpful and got us through many months of the year. We are fortunate that we’re finally at a point in the city where we’re able to reopen for tours and tastings. We’re lucky that we have space to really set anyone’s mind at ease who’s coming in here.”
The business has layered in additional precautions to help protect visitors, including limited tour sizes, a new layout, and a policy that guests must wear masks when not seated and sampling spirits.
Out of necessity, the pandemic has also forced the distillery to add a strong distribution model to its business. It has moved forward with off-premise distribution by way of liquor stores and online sales. “That’s been one of the great wins of 2020 for us, is that we have online shipping throughout the U.S. and actually even some international selling all available through our website,” Johnson adds. In 2021, Seven Three will expand to South Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama markets, in addition to shipping via Passion Spirits to nearly all 50 states. It will also release a bourbon to round out its portfolio—a project that has been on the horizon for as long as the distillery’s been open.  
The pandemic is a formidable hurdle, but its residents believe New Orleans will remain unbeatable in its distinctive approach to cocktails—and now rum. “I love the city because it has a particular kind of magic that I think has an undeniable magnetism. There’s a reason people flock to the city from all over the world,” Hughes says. “The culture is unique and singular. There is no place in the world like New Orleans. Every time I drive over and look at the skyline, I’m like, ‘Oh, I do live here now, and I love it!’”
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