Mike Fruge is quick to admit that whiskey takes time to make. It usually ages in barrels for years. The four-year wait for JT Meleck rice whiskey, named after his great-granduncle, was a little more exciting because no one else has made an American whiskey with rice, he says. It was a leap of faith to see how it would turn out.
“It’s hard to imagine there being a new Spirit that hasn’t been made before,” says Fruge.
He figured it was worth the risk and patience.
“Like my grandfather used to say, ‘My nickel’s on the jukebox, I gotta dance to the music,'” says Fruge.
Fruge comes from a family of generations of farmers, and they built a 4,000-acre farm primarily for rice and crawfish in Branch, Louisiana. In 2017, they decided to use some of their rice to open a distillery built on the original 20-acre farm. They released a vodka in 2018 and recently a whiskey. Fruge spoke to Gambit about farming and distillation in Acadiana.
Gambit: How did your family get into farming?
Mike Fruge: My great-granduncle John literally traveled to Louisiana in a covered wagon after the Civil War. They came to Louisiana to get cheaper land. A lot of people did that during that time. They were highland farmers, meaning they planted things without water. They were used to that. They came to Louisiana and it was difficult to grow these crops because it was so wet. Finally, there was this type of rice called Providence rice. You would create the best environment you could, you would plant the rice crop, but you depended on Mother Nature to provide the water. But providence didn’t always do that, so they called it providence rice.
This started the entire rice industry in southern Louisiana. It became an industry around the turn of the century. Not just for us, but rice was a big deal. It lasted until the 1960s, give or take.
The farm passed to my great-uncle, my grandfather. He grew rice all his life. My father struggled with this. In general, all types of agriculture struggled in the 1980s. Many farmers went out of business. My father went to the oil field. When my brother and I finished college, the family was still involved in farming, but not on a large scale. I didn’t think I would actually become a farmer.
Lobster farming was still in its infancy. It was in a pioneering phase. My brother and I started doing this when we were in college to make extra money. We could make more money that way than working for minimum wage. It sort of got us through the last few years of college. My brother loves the dirt. He’s a tractor diver. He’s always wanted to do that. He worked for it. I pretty much started the crawfish farm and my brother was my partner. We started shipping crawfish everywhere. Long story short, 30 years later we rebuilt the farm to about 4,000 acres of rice and crawfish. We sell a lot of crawfish in Texas and that’s our main business.
Gambit: How did you get interested in distilling?
question: Now every farmer is a crayfish farmer. In this we are no longer innovative. So I started looking for what’s next. What can we do with the rice? How can we add more value to it? We looked around and nothing really clicked. Then someone asked me, “I was wondering if we can make vodka out of this stuff?”
I started researching. I found a convention about artisanal distilling. I got on a plane and flew to the American Distilling Institute (Convention). That was in Baltimore that year. I started asking for rice and literally 100% of the people looked at me like I had three heads. They said, “Rice? Never heard of it. Don’t know.” Someone said, “Someone made some sake.” There was no information.
If you understand liquor production, liquor is an agricultural product. Whiskey was the last step in trying to get a crop. You grow a crop, feed the animals, eat off it, you saved as much as you could. When it started getting old, you made beer with it. Then they took what was left and distilled it. This was a commodity that you could later exchange for whatever you needed. This is how the whiskey industry was made.
Before Prohibition, there were 10,000 distilleries in America. After Prohibition there were only three, and they were controlled by a lot of money. It wasn’t until the beer industry was disrupted by the microbreweries that the rules changed and allowed artisans to try. The point is, Reis never got his shot.
I started studying the market and I realized that there is wheat whiskey, rye whiskey and corn whiskey. There’s bourbon. There’s high bourbon, there’s low bourbon, there’s scotch. There is malted barley. There are all these spirits from around the world, but there are no rice brandies that are made the American way of a yeast beer. In Asia you have shochu and sake, but these are all bacterial fermentations. They are completely different from the American style. The flavor profile is different. I said well I don’t know if anyone has done this before, I don’t know why they haven’t but there has to be a reason. Surely the biggest manufacturers have tested this and maybe they didn’t like it. I figured I’d find out.
I thought maybe there was a problem with the fermentation or distillation. I figured we would know for sure what the problem was. It turns out there doesn’t seem to be a problem.
I had a few hunches. I’m a hobby cook. Making a good beer or whiskey is like making a sauce. You have to go on some instincts. There are a few types of rice that I thought would go well with this. We tested six or seven of these and found a few that we liked. Lo and behold, it was literally the best vodka I’ve ever tasted.
We released the vodka to the public almost immediately. Since September 2018, we have been selling vodka to people in Louisiana. It builds a fan base. Every time we blind taste the vodka against something, we come out on top. We knew we had good vodka, but there are thousands of vodka brands out there. Vodka alone is hard to be unique, even if it tastes great. But the whiskey – there is nothing like it. There is no other 100% rice whiskey anywhere else. This is a unique product and it turns out to be pretty good.
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Gambit: But when you first started, did you think about making whiskey?
question: The whiskey straight from the still is amazing. It has great taste. Bourbon doesn’t have that. You have to let it age. But even though we had a great product straight out of the still, we decided to put it into casks and see what happens.
I was fortunate to have another shop so we could be patient and take our time to produce something genuine and authentic. Biggest whisky, the youngest profile you will find is four years old. So I wanted to get to four years and we did that. The whiskey we are about to release is a four year old 100% American style rice whiskey, matured in new American white oak casks.
I like the flavor profile of a bourbon. If we can bring together the sweetness of our rice – it has a natural sweetness – with caramel, butterscotch and all those great flavors that come out of whiskey casks, I think we’ll have something pretty good. We’re really proud of that.
Gambit: How was the reception?
question: We’ve garnered a pretty significant following locally in Acadiana. Many people have adopted us. Restaurants put us on the menu. We did better than expected. People have been telling their friends, and it’s slowly building.
You have to understand that whatever people are drinking now, they have an obligation. You’re trying to change her mind. This is a long game. If you’re a beer drinker and drink a national brand, chances are your dad drank it. Your friends drink it. You can’t give them anything else. You are engaged. This is our big challenge. Getting people to try it and change their minds is a long process.
We have a lot of traction in the bourbon community. Every city seems to have a Bourbon society. We are very active with the local branch and we are reaching out. Any of the bars that serve bourbon at an educated level, all of those places are naturals to us. To be a successful brand, we don’t try to be an artisan distillery in the neighborhood where people hang out in the tasting room. We do not have a tasting room. We’re in the middle of nowhere. My plan is to convert current whiskey drinkers to our brand. It’s taking a long time, but we’re in it for the long haul.
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Gambit: Now that that whiskey is out there, what’s next?
question: We have a high rice bourbon that we made. We’ll test that. We’ll see how it turned out. Let’s see what return we get. We’re going to look at a few different finishes for our whisky. But mostly we tell the story about this whiskey.
Opening a distillery and producing whiskey in bulk is a daunting challenge. It takes a lot of commitment and courage. You’re probably looking at a 10-year commitment before you know if you’re going to be successful or not. Most people cannot get funding for this period. Nobody is that patient. I just happen to be from a different perspective. It is not easy. We fight all the time trying to make sure we’re doing the right thing.
We are obsessively authentic. We have tractors, we have dirt, we grow things. Our distillery is on our farm. The same piece of land our ancestors settled on. We are expanding the distillery bit by bit. We do not have a tasting room. We do not offer guided tours for the public. We wanted to focus on building the brand and converting consumers. The public will not be driving to our yard in large numbers. We have to meet her.
See jtmeleck.net for more information.
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