Sunday, July 20, 2008

Celebration Distillation

The last time I had any real truck with Demon Rum was ’63: A post-Marist graduation visit to what was then British Honduras helped me to an acquaintance of the locally produced product which was pretty raw.

Now, thanks to a tasting with Philip Cusimano, I’ve re-made rum’s acquaintance with a higher caliber product. And wandered again into the world of audience-building for artisan products. Here, the heavy lifting’s done by skill and heart and one-bottle-at-a-time marketing.

Phil (and our hosts at Mo Mong) let me taste three different versions of Old New Orleans Rum, from the Crescent City’s Celebration Distillation. The Crystal is your basic light-bodied rum that’s probably good for mixed drinks. The Amber is fine for sippin’. But the Cajun Spice, the one with the red label – it’s just outstanding…like the website says, “with the kick of cayenne & cinnamon…hints of nutmeg, ginger & cloves…”

My but it’s tasty. Every single-barrel rum is distilled and blended the old-fashioned way at 2815 Frenchman Street in NOLA by James Michalopoulos, a well-known local artist.

One of the “country virtues” of marketing artisanal foods and beverages (cheeses and breads, beers and wines, barbeque sauces and handmade pâtés) is that you can succeed without lots of money. You substitute lots of sweat equity and smarts. Boys and girls, Michalopoulos’s marketing the hell out of this stuff, mano a mano.

Michalopoulos doesn’t have the Bacardi USA ad budget, say, or the Captain MorganMorganettes” (Caitlyn, Megan and Whitney, no less).

What he does have is a finely honed sense of local color – the Red Hat Society ladies come to lunch at the distillery, e.g. He manages a comprehensive website and maintains an active blog. Old New Orleans Rum has pages on Facebook (I’ve joined up as a fan) and MySpace. You can purchase bottles online and have them shipped…from New York.

If – or when – Michalopoulos succeeds, he’ll have done it with continuous and clever promotion on a local and regional level, slowly building the rums’ audience through brewery tours, event participation and broadening distribution sites. You can find Old New Orleans varieties in Spec’s here, for example, right along with the shelf-hogging Bacardis and Ron Ricos.

Rum, like wine, is an amazingly available product…it comes from just about everywhere. But hard liquor distilled from sugar cane and byproducts is a genuine New World invention. It played a significant role in the European and African colonization of the American continents.

That these rums remind you of beignets and coffee with chicory is positively part of the brand’s image. The appeal is local (where Elysian Fields crosses Abundance), like Shiner Bock and St Arnold beers instead of Budweiser here in Houston. You gave it up for Tito’s Handmade Vodka, right? Made in Austin, right?

Well, you can buy your rum one of the great big labels and watch your money go offshore. Or you can offer up your drinking dollars and sense of style to NOLA, where artisanal branding is alive and well.


Richard Laurence Baron said...

BTW, I understand that James Michalopoulos created the packaging for these rums. Consciously or not, the most powerful word in the vocabulary of sales appears prominently on each bottle top: NEW.

Karen Blanchard said...

Well, I am sold. New Orleans is forever home in my heart. Our next hurricane party will be stocked with it and Pat O's mix.

A mention of beignets and some Community Coffee made me homesick.


Richard Laurence Baron said...

It seems as though I was wrong about the labels.

A spirits industry exec tells me that the emPHAsis is on the wrong syLLAbles on these, with a need for greater focus on the "New Orleans" identification overall.

I see the point: The design may be getting in the way of quick identification of the USP at the POS. (Got that?) Ta for the weekend.