Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BRANCH – If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, so the saying goes. Mike Fruge has made his own version of that saying, using rice to make vodka. (Lots of rice farmers would say this year’s crop has been a big lemon.)
Fruge said it was the pattern of year-after-year of low returns on rice farming that led him to look at an alternative way to make money from growing rice.
“I’m actually trying to build a family business and brand so we can keep farming.”
His 80-proof rice vodka, labeled J.T. Meleck, has been on store shelves in south Louisiana for a year, and he has a warehouse full of bourbon also made with rice that is currently aging.
He admits he had a lot to learn about making spirits. “I didn’t know the first thing about it.”
So, he set out to see if he could make vodka from rice. He read all he could find, then attended a craft distillers convention in Baltimore and made a few contacts. “I asked a lot of people a lot of questions.”
Finally, someone at the event advised him to make 100 cases of vodka and to see if it would sell.
Rice is a natural for making liquor. “You can make alcohol from any starch,” Fruge said. “If you want it to taste good is where the trick comes in. I’m not a vodka expert, but I know what I like.”
The process is simple. The grain and other ingredients are cooked, then fermented, and finally distilled.
Fruge is tight-lipped about the exact details of his process. “I’m very protective of the recipes. I had an idea of what would work. I tried it out, and I was right. We leave just a hint of the rice smell.”
He doesn’t want to say what rice variety he uses, or whether long-, medium- or short-grain is used. He said the distillery needs about 70 acres of rice currently, but that could change. “If we are successful, we’ll need other farmers to grow it.”
His brother, Mark, oversees the family’s 4,000-acre rice crop. “He plants and he grows it, and he manages it.”
Jeremy Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Acadia Parish, said he enjoys working with Mark. “He’s a very good farmer. I deal with Mark quite a bit and he’s always open to suggestions and follows LSU AgCenter recommendations.”
Hebert, who has made a few batches of whiskey himself, said the Fruge brothers are trying to get as much out of rice production as they can.
“I’m eager to try some of their product. They’re tapping into a unique product that’s going to find a new market for rice. Not on a large scale, but a niche market.”
Mark readily admits that the farm’s 2019 rice crop, like most others, was under par.
He grows a second crop of rice but it’s intended for crawfish, not for the grain. Traps have already been placed in the dry fields in anticipation of flooding.
Fruge crawfish are sold live and whole boiled. Orders can be placed by phone or online at www.cajuncrawfish.com. They also sell turduckens, stuffed chickens and other Cajun foods.
Fruge said he enjoys creating and building a business. “I’m a serial entrepreneur.”
Fruge has been in the seafood distribution business for 30 years, so he knows how to sell a product. In one way, selling liquor is easier because unlike seafood, it has a long shelf life.
He has a clear analogy of what it’s like to sell fish: “Somebody sells you a lit stick of dynamite and you’ve got to sell it before it explodes.”
He said he has a 4-day window to sell fish, and he’s often had no choice but to discard product that is too old.
Fruge Seafood buys salmon and tuna from Alaska, Chile and the Netherlands, for distribution to consumers, mostly restaurants, throughout the U.S. Mike has the distribution part of the business in Dallas, with the sales force based in Branch.
It all started when he thought he could haul a truckload of crawfish to Texas to make more money than he could by selling to local distributors who would double their money trucking their product to Houston.
“I thought if you can double your money in Houston, you can triple your money going to Dallas.”
He quickly found out that most Texans that far north didn’t even know what a crawfish was, much less how to cook or eat one. But his efforts revealed to him that a seafood distribution of fresh fish for restaurants could be viable. And he could sell the family farm’s crawfish as Texans’ appetites for crawfish developed.
For several years, he divided his time between Dallas and Branch, and admits the travel, being away from home and the intense work almost got the better of him.
But Fruge managed to assemble a good team for the seafood business. “The seafood company is the major cash flow tool that allows me to experiment with rice distillation.”
He made a considerable investment in a 7,000-square foot building to make the product. The building houses a new cooker, called a mash tun, and a modern still that he’s yet to test. (He doesn’t allow photos to be made of the still because he doesn’t want competitors to know what he will be using.)
Six 10,000-gallon fermenting tanks will be in place soon, and a custom-made boiler has been installed to generate food-grade steam for the cooker and distilling unit.
Fruge has plans to build a tasting room in Branch, as well as a larger storage area for bourbon. But at this point he’s not sure if Fruge Spirits will produce mostly bourbon or vodka.
Before he made vodka, Fruge started by making bourbon and he thinks he has a unique angle in the craft spirits market. “Nobody is making rice whiskey.”
To be sold as bourbon under federal law, it must be made from more than 51 percent corn in the grain recipe. While some distillers also use rye or malt, Fruge uses rice with the corn.
After bourbon is distilled, it must be aged in white oak barrels that by federal law can only be used for one batch. Used barrels can be used by the Tabasco company to age pepper mash or by Scottish distillers to make scotch whiskey.
The barrels are charred on the inside, and that’s what gives the whiskey its tawny color. Fruge said tannin in the oak also imparts a smoky flavor to the bourbon.
The barrels filled with whiskey have been stored for three years in an uninsulated storage area. “We want as much heat on these barrels as possible.”
He explained that during hot weather, the bourbon seeps into the wood where it absorbs flavor. In cold weather, the whiskey leaches out of the wood, drawing out the flavor and aroma. During the 3-year aging period, he’s yet to taste it. He plans to open a barrel in October to sample it, and then he’ll decide if the bourbon is a saleable product.
Fruge hasn’t settled on a name for the bourbon or a bottle design. He also isn’t sure when it will be available for sale. “I really don’t have good answer to that. When it’s ready, it will be ready, just like gumbo.”
He stressed that patience is key to making good bourbon. “You’ve got to sit on it to see what you’re going to get. Good bourbon is 4 years old, and the best is 8 to 12 years old.”
In the meantime, vodka can be distilled and bottled in a month.
He’s kept distribution of the vodka within Louisiana so far, and the vodka can be found in several stores including Rouse’s grocery.
The vodka bottle has a distinct tapered shape. The label details the J.T. Meleck story and the logo includes several Louisiana icons, such as crawfish and rice. His wife, Courtney, came up with the design.
“I’m trying to be a niche Louisiana product. Anybody can make the stuff, but can you sell it? Can you create a following?”
Fruge has a good angle for his first product. The vodka is named after His great, great uncle J.T. Meleck, who came to Louisiana in the 1870s from Indiana and started farming. The Fruge brothers still farm on land that’ been in the family since 1896.
Fruge said it was his grandfather, Rufus Fruge, who taught him about farming, and had him on a tractor before he was 10.
What would his grandfather think of the liquor-making endeavor? “My grandfather was extremely hard to please. I think at some level, he would have to be proud, but he wouldn’t admit it. He was old school.”
“I can hear him now, ‘Fella, you sure you know what you’re doing?’ and I would say, ‘No, but I’m doing my best.’ “