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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LT&C

FATHER'S DAY SPECIAL: Inside the daughter-dad distillery turning Louisiana sugar cane into rum

Step inside the Noel Distillery in Donaldsonville and you’ll smell the sweet, funky scent of cane juice fermenting and see Natalie Noel, her father Frank, sister, and aunt hard at work checking temperatures on the still, bottling rum and attaching labels.

This is a small but growing family operation, and one of only a handful of rum distilleries in Louisiana.

“We live in one of the largest sugar cane producing areas of the world. Why are we not making more rum?” said 68-year-old Frank "Chip" Noel.

After a life as a pilot, during which he spent a lot of time around the Caribbean and grew fond of cigars and rum, Frank took up distilling as a hobby when he retired.

“His personality my entire life has been about new hobbies,” said Natalie Noel, his daughter and business partner. “Taxidermy, woodworking, golf, etc. He wasn’t just going to drink rum; he had to go to the next level.”

Natalie Noel played basketball at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she received a degree in marketing. Later, she earned her MBA at LSU. So when her dad became interested in rum, she thought they could turn it into something more than a hobby.

Frank made his own still, and Natalie and the rest of the family incorporated the business and gave him the paperwork as a Christmas present. That was six years ago, and this year Noel Distillery opened for business.

“I’ve always had a passion for bringing people together to enjoy a good cocktail,” Natalie says. “Starting the distillery gave me the possibility of a legacy to leave down to my kids. And I get to work with my dad. We’re best friends.”

Why aren't there more rum distilleries in Louisiana? 

Though Louisiana is one of the largest sugar cane producers in the world, only a handful of distilleries make local rum. The startup costs are high. Distilleries need expensive fermenters and bottling equipment (the Noels have since upgraded from the homemade still), and a lot of regulatory paperwork is required.

“The barrier to entry is extremely high,” Natalie Noel said.

Plus, despite Louisiana’s love of daiquiris, rum is not most people’s alcohol of choice. Vodka is the most popular spirit in the U.S., though tequila has inched closer in recent years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. 

The Noels hope to change that. Many Americans think of rum as spiced or sweet. That’s because most rum sold in the U.S. is made with molasses or mixed into sugary drinks.

But "rhum agricole," the French term for rum made directly from sugar cane juice, is grassy and herbal. And aged rum, like the one the Noels are working on, can drink almost like a whiskey.

“I want to be known for flavor and fun,” Natalie Noel said. “Louisiana has so much spirit and culture, so much diversity and flair. Tito’s is at every single festival in Louisiana, but I want to scream from the rooftops: Local can be exceptional,” she said.

How it's made

The Noels are making an agricole rum they hope to release in summer of 2024. Frank grew up on a sugar cane farm and his cousin is one of the largest sugar cane producers in the state, so he has a good relationship with the mill where they get their juice.

“It’s a whole process of trying to ferment this muddy juice,” he says.

From sweet, fresh juice comes great rum. Sugar cane juice is a raw material and starts to ferment immediately. Frank Noel likes to keep it cool for a slow fermentation, which he says is key for getting maximum flavor.

That and his proprietary blend of yeast.

After fermentation, the juice is pumped into a still and boiled down to 90 proof. Ten gallons of juice makes about 75 to 80 bottles of rum.

From there, it can be served or aged. The Noels are making a 3-year aged rum in addition to the agricole.

Because there was a lag on when rum made from Louisiana cane could be produced, this year the distillery is selling a rum made with molasses from Central America. It is finished in tequila barrels, which imparts a unique agave flavor. Natalie Noel says it is great in cocktails with banana, mint and other tropical ingredients.

Noel Distillery also has a vodka made from corn twice distilled, a pickle vodka, and a tequila.

The tequila recently won a gold medal at the New York International Spirits Competition.

The hardest part of the business so far, Natalie Noel said, has been trying to change human drinking behavior.

“To get out of the marketplace and say ‘hey, we exist!’” she said. “People don’t want to try something new or don’t believe the quality is good.”

For now, the spirits are available at Calandro’s, Hocus Pocus, and other retailers, as well as Bengal Tap, Mother’s, Uncle Earl’s and a few other Baton Rouge bars. The Noels recently signed a contract with Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, a large distribution company they hope will help spread the word about Louisiana rum.

Those interesting in making the trip to Donaldsonville can visit the distillery from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, take a tour for $12 and taste all four spirits for $8. Tours are available Saturdays on request, and the distillery hosts Christmas parties and other events.

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