Images: Sean Gasser
The beach may be far away from Baton Rouge, but the taste of the tropics is closer than before with the city’s newest distillery, Cane Land Distilling Company.
Cane Land, located in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge at 760 St. Phillip Street, was founded in 2013 by Walter Tharp, whose family has owned and operated Alma Plantation & Sugar Mill in Lakeland, Louisiana for more than 150 years. The idea to open a distillery in Baton Rouge came when Tharp attended a party at a wedding of the owners of rum company Ron Zacapa in Guatemala. Owners of sugar mills from Guatemala and El Salvador attended the wedding, and one common question that emerged from conversations was, “You have a sugar mill, and you don’t make rum? Why not?”
Having a resource such as Alma Plantation & Sugar Mill, Tharp knew his next venture would be beyond candy bars, and the planning for the future Cane Land had begun.
“That started the wheels in motion to bring a distillery to Baton Rouge,” Tharp said. “Four years later, here we are.”
Now, Cane Land produces about 150 gallons of spirits a day and is slowly finding its way into distributing at local restaurants and grocery stores. In addition to serving up frozen daiquiris made with the distillery’s signature rum, Cane Land’s bar also offers signature cocktails made from its spirits, including Red Stick Cinnamon Rum, and Shindig Vodka.
The distillery is a rare business breed that boosts being completely “cane-to-glass.” Owning the farmland on Alma allows the distillery to have complete control over the production and distilling process, resulting in one of the country’s estate bottled spirits.
“With wine, that’s very common; in spirits, not so much,” Tharp said. “We control the entire process, essentially meaning everything is under one ownership: from the planting of the sugar cane to the farming of the sugar cane, to milling it and turning it into sugar and molasses, and ultimately bringing it here and fermenting it and then distilling it. We own that entire process, which is pretty rare. I think it translates well into our product.”
According to Tharp, an aim of Cane Lane is to make an experience where people can come in to not only get to taste quality spirits, but to have an opportunity to educate themselves on Louisiana agriculture. One such method lies in the company’s unique brand of whiskey. Following in the footsteps of distillers before them, Cane Land partnered up with the O.Z. Tyler Distillery in Tennessee to bring Baton Rouge the O.M.F.W. (Original Mississippi Floated Whiskey), which is crafted in Tennessee and then floated down the Mississippi River to Louisiana and finished in cognac vats.
“We floated it down the Mississippi to pay tribute to the way whiskey was once transported,” Tharp said, “It’s how Bourbon Street became Bourbon Street and it is how whiskey gained its color and character-—by rocking on the river for months on end.”
The intent of creating an individual experience rooted in Louisiana history also extends to the fixtures of the building. Upon stepping through the glass front doors, there is an immediate blend of modern with a rustic, old world feel as the décor is agriculturally-focused with old farming implements to create unique fixtures.
“There’s a lot of old farming implements that we’ve pulled from to decorate the place and make furniture out of,” Tharp said. “We have an old bull gear here from the early 1900s…The cabana used to be a sugar cane cart that used to go on the back of an 18-wheeler…And we have these old crown gears here that were used in the early 1900s as well. We had a good time making furniture out of the stuff here.”
Perhaps the most impressive features, however, are found in the Barrel Room. Inside live three 150-year-old towering cognac vats that came directly from Remy-Martin, France. These vats are just off the tasting room floor where the spirits are aged. One vat holds what equates to 22,000 fifths of whiskey, with the vat giving it a nice, smooth finish over time.
“We actually had four Frenchmen disassemble them in Cognac, France, and fly over here with them and reassemble them,” Tharp said. “That’s really important to us, keeping that French connection with Louisiana and France alive and well. A lot of the barrels are cognac barrels sourced from France. We think that’s going to play well with rums and aging.”
The first steps in creating Cane Land spirits begin inside the fermentation room, where raw sugar and molasses start out in 4,000-5,000-gallon tanks that are diluted with water and heated, then moved to stills units where the variations of sugars and molasses are fermented into alcohol.
“You bring the sugar solution to a place where the yeasts are happy, add yeast to it, and the yeast starts gobbling up the sugar and a bi-product of that is alcohol,” said Jonny Ver Planck, the head of distilling at Cane Land. “The alcohol that comes out of these tanks is between five and 12 percent depending on what we’re doing.”
According to Ver Planck, the entire fermentation process takes between four to seven days. After fermentation, the product is then moved to one of two Cane Land stills on display by the names of Sweet Jayne and Evangeline. Once distillation is complete, a spirit may be bottled immediately, or it may need to be aged.
“Having a distiller like Jonny that really knows what he’s doing has translated to a lot of smiles around here,” Tharp said. “When people come in and taste the spirits, they’re excited and surprised by how good they are.”
Having previously lived in Belize and owning a tiki bar himself, Ver Planck is a fan of higher proof rums and said Cane Land is shooting for higher proof rums down the road.
“Right now, we’re concentrating on getting everything here to run smoothly in preparation for harvest season, and once the new year kicks in, there will be other products we’ll be doing for sure,” Ver Planck said.
Currently, Cane Land is part of a new resurgence in downtown’s food and drink scene, opening its doors for distillery tours, tastings, rentals and tiki-themed events every third Saturday of the month.
“We’re going to have cocktail classes where our bartenders will teach folks how to make craft cocktails, and we’re also going to have a volunteer bottling program where people can sign up and bottle with us on the line and take home a T-shirt,” Tharp said. “It’s really fun.”