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Ingesting the Opposition - Week 4: Donner-Peltier Distillers

As Mississippi State opens SEC play in Baton Rouge against LSU, prepare yourself by ingesting craft spirits made from Cajun sugar cane and physics-defying Louisiana rice. If you don't, I can't be responsible for what the Rougaroux might do.

Courtesy of Donner-Peltier Distillers

 

As our alcohol-soaked magic carpet makes a temporary detour from the breweries of Mississippi and Alabama to venture westward into Louisiana, I'm reminded of the many associations I make from the outside looking in. Pertinent to the journey at hand, of course, there are the state's liquor laws that, to one reared in Mississippi and Tennessee, seem otherworldly. Daiquiri drive-throughs, vast expanses of open containers, and two-foot tall lime-green stomach aches in the French Quarter. Ancient bars that serve ancient cocktails. Stories from the Natchez side of my family about trips across the river to visit the last place in the country that allowed eighteen-year-olds to drink.

This is the state, after all, whose infamous governor Huey Long, when asked about what Louisiana was doing to enforce prohibition laws shortly after the zenith of national temperance, bluntly revealed his and his constituency's disdain for the movement: "Not a damn thing."[1]

Notwithstanding the boozy nature of this sports-occasioned ramble through Louisiana, though, the more substantive images my mind conjures are those of food and culture. Creole and Cajun cuisine are, to put it mildly, mind-boggling. I could name dishes and recipes and chefs that have caused near-psychedelic experiences with the most seemingly simple ingredients, but it would soon devolve into incoherent babble about roux and pecans and crawfish and wine and steam rising off of wet pavement and a dewdrop from a gardenia blossom landing on the eye of a lizard.

So I'll move on.

The cultural associations, while no less vivid, are admittedly either abstract or anecdotal. I think of jazz and zydeco. I think of "voodoo" and gothic literature. I think of Mardi Gras. I think of swamps and alligators. I think of the day it snowed in Shreveport back in 2000 because the Saints had finally won a playoff game. I think of reality-show caricatures of Cajun men and a dozen or so hour-long dramas about vampires that everyone seems to watch except me.

But now, after the good people at Donner-Peltier Distillers were kind enough to tell me about the enchanted potions they concoct down in Thibodaux, the most authentically Louisiana things I can think of are sugar cane, rice, and a bayou-dwelling, God-fearing werewolf called a Rougaroux.

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Thibodaux shares many of the virtues of old, small communities in southern Louisiana. Its 18th century origins are flavored with French colonialism, while its growth in the 19th century was spurred by a local plantation and impeded by later Union occupation during the Civil War. For years its high school mascot has been a near-replica of LSU's, complete with purple and gold accents. And its parish cathedral has the requisite relics of the area's patron saints. (Saint Valeria of Milan's arm bone, if you were wondering, has been hanging out in Thibodaux since 1868. Since the 1920s, it's had some solid digs.)

The town is also smack in the middle of sugar cane country.

Now, I vaguely knew that people grew sugar cane in southern Louisiana, and that sugar plantations were to that region what cotton plantations were to the Delta. But, having never traveled extensively in the area before, I wasn't aware of how important the industry remained. Nearly half a million acres of sugar cane fields scattered across around two dozen parishes produce thirteen million tons of cane that pump $3,500,000,000 into the state every year. Ten sugar mills dot the landscape between Lafayette and New Orleans—including one in Thibodaux—and close to 20,000 people have jobs dedicated to keeping the whole thing in motion.

So when the Thibodaux-reared, LSU-educated Donner and Peltier families were vacationing together out West in 2010, sugar was on their minds even if it wasn't in the air. Though they were far from the Gulf's beaches, they were drinking rum. And at some point during their conversation, as Mr. Donner's cocktails imbued him with their tranquil wisdom, his mind became clear and a simple question sprang into existence from the rummy depths of consciousness. "Why isn't anyone making rum with all that sugar cane we grow back home?" Of course, the question immediately implied its own answer. Holding his glass aloft, his satori was complete: "We should make this!"

Neither the Donners nor the Peltiers had backgrounds in moonshining or home brewing, and their extensive educations—collectively, the two couples had an MBA, two M.D.s, and a nursing degree—didn't exactly have them prepared for a head-first dive into the world of craft distillation. So they set about doing their homework and getting their regulatory ducks in a row. They visited distilleries, took classes, learned about the importance of simple, quality ingredients, and got all the permits and licenses they would need. They purchased a high-end 3,000-liter still, they hired an experienced master distiller, and they designed and built a facility fit for their dream.

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The rum that Donner-Peltier distills is as true to its surroundings as any alcohol I've ever heard of. The cane that the distillery uses is grown locally, is harvested by fellow Louisianans, and is milled into sugar products about a mile from the distillery's doorstep. There are no added neutral grain spirits, colors, or extracts. It's just distilled local blackstrap molasses[2] served one of three ways: (1) "Sugarshine," which is bottled unaged at a rip-roaring 101 proof; (2) "Full Moon," which is briefly aged with oak for a smoother, smoky drink meant for being enjoyed neat or on the rocks; and (3) "13 Pennies Praline," which is infused with both site-roasted pecans they buy from an orchard near Alexandria and a little local cane syrup for your sweet tooth.

The Cajun cherry on Donner-Peltier's local sugar sundae, though, comes in the name it gave its rums that is straight from centuries-old Acadiana folklore. According to these legends, a creature called a "Rougaroux"—derived from the French phrase "loup garou," which roughly translates as "werewolf"—prowls the bayou doing the Lord's work. For indeed, this is the perfect Louisiana boogeyman—it stalks bad Catholics. You been missing mass lately? Half-assing Lent the past couple of years? Well, then it sucks to be you, man, because the Rougaroux is probably tracking your offensive heathen stench as you read this.

Your only hope? The other gloriously Cajun thing about this legend—the beast's weakness resides in its fascination with small shiny things. You see, it can't count past the number twelve. So, if your pagan ways have you in the Rougaroux's sights, get yourself thirteen shiny objects—hence the "13 Pennies" in the praline rum—to line up outside your door. Apparently once it counts to twelve, it has to start its accounting of the shine anew. This continues all night until, when the sun starts to rise, the beast has no choice but to run back to the bayou to escape the morning.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do rum in Louisiana.

Dsc_0589_mediumDPD's tasting room is open until 6:00 p.m. every day this week. Go.

Taking advantage of the local sugar industry may in hindsight seem obvious. It was an untapped resource, but it made sense.

The Donners and Peltiers weren't satisfied with the obvious, though. What about the other 400,000 acres that Louisiana's farmers use for growing rice? It may not be quite as big of an industry as sugar, but it too employs thousands and contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the state's economy every year. And its cultural role in the state is certainly no less prevalent than sugar cane's.

Ok, so, y'all want to make, um, saké?

Well, no, that would just be weird. Plus, most rice farmers in Louisiana grow nonglutinous, long grain rice. The Donners informed me that this in not the kind of rice that distillers use to make saké and other Asian-style rice-based spirits. That art requires short-grain, glutinous rice, which lacks one of the two strains of starch found in nonglutinous rice, and contains an overabundance of the remaining starch that causes stickiness. As result, glutinous rice is more conducive to mash fermentation. The nonglutinous variety, on the other hand, just wouldn't work the same way. Hence, no one in the world used nonglutionous rice to make any kind of libation, as master brewers admonished them during their R&D process. You know, because of science and junk.

What, then, did the Donners and Peltiers do? They defied the conventions of grain distillers across the world and just battled the grain over and over again until it bent to their will. And now they can proudly say that they developed a "secret process" that allows them to be the only distiller in the world to use Louisiana-style long-grain rice as a base for spirits.

The result? Oryza Vodka and Gin, both of which are composed entirely of Louisiana rice (sans the botanicals and fruit components in the gin, of course), and a rice-tinged, malt-forward Louisiana Whiskey.

When I asked the Donners about the flavor imparted by the rice in these spirits, the descriptions they gave contained adjectives like "soft sweetness" and "creamy."  Maybe some others they should have thought of were "silver" and "gold:"

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As Louisiana-proud LSU-grads who "suffer from depression when football season ends," the folks at Donner-Peltier are well acquainted with the confluence of sport and gastro-theology. "We eat Razorback stew and Gator sausage," they tell me, "and would eat crimson tide if we could figure out how to cook it." They also try to instill the same cosmic significance in their own ingestibles, noting that their vodka would have been called "Mike" if they could have trademarked the name, and that their "rum's final production step involves roaring at it."

So what would they recommend for tailgating beverages during Saturday's game?

"If you are an LSU fan, champagne. If you are an MSU fan, Maalox."

Har har.

But seriously, their game day recommendation was, without hesitation, to go with the classic:

A true no-brainer: Oryza Gin and Tonic. We specifically crafted our gin for the South Louisiana gin and tonic season to help survive the oppression of 110 degree heat index days. The 11 botanicals we use include four fruit components (satsumas, canteloupes, lemon peel, and orange peel) which make it distinctly citrusy, and the result is a uniquely refreshing G&T. No lime required.

I suggest you do the same.

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[1] David R. Williams, Gulf Coast Booze During Prohibition: Smuggling and Distilling (HTA Press, 1995) (citing The New York Times, April 5 and October 1, 1931). Louisiana's position on federal prohibition was more complex than Gov. Long's, mind you. While the state did differ from others in the South insofar as it did not mandate statewide prohibition before (or after) the federal law took effect, dozens of its parishes took advantage of the state's local option laws to become dry within the decade preceding the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. The northern parishes seemed to be more prone to this than those in the southern part of the state, and New Orleans remained a bastion of anti-prohibition sentiment until the law was repealed in 1933. This divide was reflected when state legislators considered ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment. Louisiana voted in favor of the amendment in a relatively timely manner, but did so by the narrowest margin of any other state in the country—1 vote. Joy Jackson, "Prohibition in New Orleans: The Unlikeliest Crusade," Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Summer, 1978).

[2]Blackstrap molasses is a by-product of the sugar manufacturing process that many distilleries use as a base for rum. It differs from regular molasses insofar as its relative sugar content is lower while its content of vitamins and minerals is higher. The Donners explained to me that their use of blackstrap is due to concerns of both quality and expediency:

We use black strap for two reasons: The local mill's black strap is very good stuff, and it is available year round. Syrup is generally more expensive and doesn't add anything to rum quality, and raw sugarcane juice is only available during harvest, which in Louisiana is seasonal unlike in the tropics where sugarcane can be grown and harvested year round.

This is a topic we'll revisit a few times this season. You should start taking notes.