Story and Photos by Bruce Shultz
BATON ROUGE – The Alma Plantation of Pointe Coupee Parish has brought its sugarcane from the field to the bottle.
The Cane Land Distilling Co. started up in 2013 by Walter Tharp to make rum from Alma sugarcane.
Tharp can trace his family’s ownership of the operation to 1858 when Alma was purchased from the Barrow family. His uncle, David Stewart, is the president of Alma Plantation and sugar mill.
Alma’s tradition and storied heritage is being captured in their products. Cane Land currently has four liquors: Argente, a rum intended for mixed drinks; Parade spice flavored rum for sipping, the Original Mississippi Floated Whiskey; Shindig Vodka and Red Stick cinnamon rum.
Also planned are a dark rum, a gin and a tequila.
Obvious remnants of the sugar mill are everywhere at the Cane Land facility in downtown Baton Rouge at 760 St. Philip St., (adjacent to the location of the old Steinberg’s Sporting Goods store.)
A cane cart turned on its side provides a sheltered seating area. Large gears and wooden beams provide a rustic setting for the reception area. The walls are lined with pecky cypress boards.
Beneath the glass-covered bar is raw sugar from Alma.
“Most everything you see here came from the mill,” Tharp said.
The distillery also has a French connection. Wooden vats were obtained from the Remy Martin cognac distillery in France. Two French coopers came to Baton Rouge to meticulously piece the staves and hoops together to form the vessels. “It took them four days to reassemble them,” Tharp recalled.
Each barrel holds 22,000 fifths of liquor. Tharp explained that the barrels have been used to finish the Original Mississippi Floated Whiskey. Cane Land commissioned a Tennessee whiskey maker (Tharp can’t say who it was) to make a batch of whiskey and ship it to Baton Rouge via barge on the Mississippi River. The whiskey is aged in the barrels to absorb the subtle tones of cognac.
“We’re taking 5-year-old whiskey and putting it in cognac barrels for 4 to 5 months. That gives it a different flavor profile.”
The distillery also has a set of 1,100 gallon, Italian-made fermentation tanks to make for its other products.
Most of the rum Cane Land produces is made from molasses from the Alma sugar mill. Molasses is cane juice reduced by heat to syrup. It’s usually sold for cattle feed as blackstrap molasses.
But the crème de la crème of the distillery is rhum agricole, and it requires fresh cane juice, which begins to deteriorate almost immediately. Rhum agricole is the French term for cane juice rum, a delicately flavored rum originally distilled in the French Caribbean islands from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice rather than molasses.
The distillery wasn’t ready until the end of the recent grinding season, so only 2.5 barrels were made of the high-end liquor.
“Next year, we’ll shoot for 100 barrels,” Tharp said.
The distillery has a steam plant as a heat source for the distillation process, heating water to 210 degrees.
The man in charge of distillation is Jonny Ver Planck, a former rock and roll soundman and recording engineer for groups such as Reverend Horton Heat, Voodoo Glowskulls, Linkin Park and Hank Williams III. He started distilling rum in Belize 15 years ago.
“I’m always trying to make things better,” Ver Planck said. “A lot of it is written down and a lot of it is by feel.”
Ver Planck said he has been crafting alcoholic beverages since he was a boy. “The first thing I ever made was an apple cider. I was 10 years old.”
Ver Planck explained in detail the components of the distilling process that are called heads, hearts and tails. Heads are bad, containing methanol, ketones and other nasty chemicals. The hearts contain the ethyl alcohol, but the tails determine the flavor, he explained.
The actual still is made of copper, and Ver Planck explained that the metal pulls sulphur and other undesired chemicals that have a negative effect on flavor.
The byproduct of rum distilling is a liquid called dunder. Normally it is discarded but it is high in minerals for cattle, Ver Planck said.
“Dairy farmers who used it increased milk production by 3 percent,” Ver Planck said. From 500 gallons of liquid at the start of the distillation process, 50 gallons of rum can be made with 450 gallons of dunder to dispose.
Ver Planck is working with Cathy Williams, LSU AgCenter animal science professor to find a way to make the byproduct usable.
“I would like to work with him when we have cattle to be fed,” Williams said.
She explained that she is waiting until LSU has a calf crop to be weaned, probably in the fall, before working with the dunder as a possible supplement. In the meantime, she is analyzing dunder samples to determine its exact mineral content.
She agrees it probably would be a good feed additive for dairy operations, but she said the amount would have to be limited because of possible problems excess minerals could cause to cows’ rumens.
“It’s just trying to figure out how we can make this work.”
The Cane Land Distillery is open to the public, and Tharp plans to have live entertainment occasionally. Food trucks will be in operation also.
Currently without a distributor, Cane Land products can only be bought at the company’s downtown Baton Rouge location. “The only alcohol we can sell is what we make,” Tharp said.
Ver Planck said he has a secret source of Mexican agave that will be used for tequila, but since Cane Land tequila won’t be made in Mexico it can’t be called tequila and it will probably be labeled as “agave spirits.”
Stewart said the past grinding season was good for Alma. “It was a very profitable year.”
Alma has 2,800 acres in cane production and it uses cane from other farmers. Stewart said Alma is the only remaining operation in Louisiana under the original plantation structure with a mill, functioning commissary and living quarters for farm workers. Its plantation bell is rung at noon every day.
“We’ve been able to retain the legacy, but keep current,” Stewart said. “I think Walter is one who really appreciates the legacy and I’m pleased.”
Tharp got the idea for making rum from the family sugarcane operation 4 years ago while attending a wedding in Guatemala. Several men at the wedding were puzzled why rum wasn’t being made from Louisiana sugarcane, and that set Tharp to thinking about changing that.
During those 4 years, Tharp had to negotiate the quirky labyrinth of local, state and federal laws requiring the production and sales of alcoholic beverages. Even the typeface on the labels is scrutinized by authorities.
“The main driving force is the commitment to Alma Plantation,” Tharp said.
Tharp said he wants to work with other distillers in Louisiana, perhaps to start a rum trail similar to the Bourbon Trail of Kentucky or the Sonoma and Napa Valley wine tours of California.
Stewart said he is pleased that his nephew has taken this step to bring Alma’s tradition to the public, and he said he has a secret project to further raise Alma’s profile.
“It’s another source of income from sugarcane that I think will be a success. Bringing Alma back to its glory days is my raison d’etre.”
You can read more about the distillery at www.canelanddistilling.com, where information is provided about arranging tours of the facility.