Spirit of the Bayou: Thibodaux doctors take on the distillery business

Published: May. 17, 2013 at 10:01 PM CDT|Updated: May. 24, 2013 at 10:01 PM CDT
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A couple of doctors in the business of making people well have a new venture aimed at simply making people feel good.

One-of-a-kind vodka and rum, made from the natural bounty of Louisiana, are distilled right next to rows and rows of sugarcane.

Dr. Henry Peltier is a pediatrician who still owns a family sugarcane farm. Dr. Tom Donner is a neurosurgeon born and raised on the bayou.

The doctors and their wives were vacationing a few years ago when Tom Donner made an interesting pitch: "I tossed it out to my friend and said, 'Why don't we start making rum?' The next thing we know we have a distillery."

Donner Peltier Distillers is tucked near the fields that inspired the owners.

"Everybody thought we were crazy," said Jennifer Peltier. "My friends told us everybody is talking about y'all."

Now people are talking about the products, such as Oryza vodka -- the only vodka in the world made from Louisiana rice.

"It has a smooth finish and makes a great martini," said Beth Donner.

The Rougaroux Full Moon Dark and Rougaroux Sugarshine rums are other products, named after "the Cajun boogie man that lurks in the sugarcane fields."

The Rougaroux would have a hard time hiding in sugarcane fields around Thibodaux now. The fields are low and will take about four months to grow before harvest. But rum-making never stops, and sugar never runs out in Thibodaux.

There's a massive sugar mountain at Lafourche Sugar, a mill not far from Donner Peltier. Sugar is dumped and distillers haul off hundreds of pounds at a time to make rums.

"I'm not a drinker," said Lafourche Sugar worker George Raffray. "I would try it to just see what it's like."

Raffray helps distillers collect sticky cane molasses for the rum in a big blue drum.

"It's nice being here from the ground up and seeing how big we can get," said distiller Tyson Frizzell. He moved from Oregon to make spirits come alive.

"We're bringing molasses up to pasteurization temperature which is 170. We cook on it for about an hour and from there we'll load in our sugar to the top of the mash tun.

A 600-gallon mash tun prepares the sugar and molasses for the next step of fermentation.

"Start of finish we cook on it for one day, it ferments about a week. One batch of rum will produce about 720 bottles," he said.

"It certainly uses our science background to look at the chemistry behind the fermentation process the distillation process." Peltier said.

The distillery has been in business for a little over a year, but has only been open for about six months. In that time this distillery in its infancy has already been recognized for its rums and vodka at the World Spirits Competitions in Austria and San Francisco.

"Each product won gold and our Sugarshine won best in class," Donner said.

The little distillery is already poised for expansion as the demand for home grown spirits seems to grow.

"It's not brain surgery," said Dr. Tom Donner."It's a lot more fun."

The distillery will unveil the first whiskey made in Louisiana since prohibition in 2014. It will be called La 1. A new praline rum comes out by the end of the year.

So the next time you pass a cane field in Thibodaux, look closely. You may see the Rougaroux, or smell molasses cooking for the rum. It's made by a couple of medicine men with a dream.