Natchez Micro Distillery Makes A Rum For It

NATCHEZ, MS (AP) — The idea had been ripening since a 1990 visit to Martinque and Guadeloupe, where Doug and Regina Charboneau's before-kids Caribbean vacation went down as easily as the good island rum. Particularly the aged rum.

         In the restaurant business, they continued tracking down that taste in the United States.

         "We knew what we liked, and we knew what we were looking for, so we've been collecting old rums from all over the world, whenever we see them," Doug said.

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         Now his hand in them goes further than fetching a bottle or holding a glass. As partner with his oldest son, Jean-Luc, 24, they've started a rum micro distillery in Natchez next door to the river port city's oldest structure King's Tavern, which dates back to 1789.

         Their move back to Regina's hometown of Natchez 14 years ago also brought them back to the South, where rum's raw material sugar cane is available.

         "So by having the raw materials right here, it's more interesting to make a product where it is, rather than make a product where it isn't," he said, noting a sugar mill in Jeanerette, LA, that's their source.

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         That mixes well with Natchez's tourist pattern, too, adding another experience to the gift basket. There's already a local winery (Old South Winery).

         "So, we are the local distillery," Doug said, and a local brewery is expected soon.

         "It's going to be a trifecta," Natchez tourism spokeswoman Jessica Cauthen said, with the addition of Natchez Brewing Company's plans for a craft brewery Under the Hill next spring. "I don't think anywhere else in the state offers that."

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         King's Tavern, with its history and rumored hauntings, is already a huge tourist draw. "Now that we have a rum distillery right there on the property, it adds such a different dimension."

         There are several dimensions at work, too, at King's Tavern and the distillery. Chef, cookbook author and American Queen culinary director Regina Charboneau took the King's Tavern building and kitchen for a restaurant, open evenings Thursday and Friday and noon to close Saturday and Sunday. Upstairs is a small one-room liquor store that focuses on unique, small-batch products, including Charboneau rum once it became available just weeks ago. And the distillery is a stone's throw away on the corner (sidewalk perspective, since the kitchen that formerly connected the buildings had to be blocked off).

         "We had to get the city to allow us to be a quote-unquote 'strip mall' because we have three businesses at one address," Doug Charboneau said.

         "Most interesting strip mall in Mississippi," Jean-Luc said.

         The distillery has been the last piece of the puzzle.

         "There were things we had to learn," Doug said, as he and his son attended conventions, classroom training and on-site classes at a distillery to get a feel for the business.

         "The manufacturing is relatively simple in its steps and processes," Doug said. Most people start out playing in the kitchen, but not these guys. "We just went straight to it."

         "We were fortunate. Our first batch worked out really well and tasted really nice," Jean-Luc said, "because otherwise we would have had to record that as a loss. Our name's on the bottle, and if I'm not happy with each batch, it's going down the drain."

         Micro distilleries in general produce fewer than 50,000 cases a year.

         "If we do 2,000 next year, we'll be extraordinarily happy, and actually pushing at the seams of our capacity as well" because of space restrictions.

         Doug pointed out several distinctions between their rum and a more widely commercial brand. Charboneau Rum uses raw sugar and raw molasses straight from the mill.

         "By using raw materials, we're closer to the source."

         The recipe of raw sugar and molasses that goes into the fermentation tank, their secret, also influences the rum's taste.

         "The third demarcation is during the distillation process itself," determining how deep they'll go in the heart's run before they cut the tails.

         "We like some of those tastes at the back end there's some caramel, there's some vanilla, there's some banana that we like," Doug said, so from readings and tastings they monitor what to keep. "We make that decision different from what other people do."

         In the distillery, the gleaming pot still is an attention-grabber.

         "In the illegal business, it's a very big still," Doug said. "In the legal business, it's a very small still sort of an entry-level production still 150 gallons."

         Each time they run the still about an eight-hour process they get about 11 gallons of finished product.

         A row of used bourbon barrels near the door are aging some of the rum Doug's long-term goal. The 15-gallon barrels speed up the maturation.

         "We'll rock our barrels every day," Doug said, increasing the contact so they should get a product that will change in color and taste within nine months to a year.

         "That's the product that eventually I want to proudly drink three years from now. Five years from now," he said.

         It's white rum for now, with aged rum about a year away.

         "I can make it, but they play with it," Doug said, indicating his wife, Regina, and bartender Ricky Woolfolk.

         "Cocktails first, definitely," Regina said. "The Hemingway Daiquiri (with Luxardo maraschino liqueur, lime and grapefruit juices) is amazing. One of my favorites. But it actually makes the best Bananas Foster" with their rum's sugar cane quality.

         About 25 years ago, old rum wasn't that common in restaurants, Doug said.

         "I always felt that rum fit that category and should be on the list," he said, and now, it's going in that direction.

         – by AP/ Reporter Sherry Lucas with The Clarion-Ledger

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