Mike Fruge is quick to acknowledge that making whiskey takes time. It’s usually aged in barrels for years. The four-year wait for J.T. Meleck rice whiskey, named for his great-great-uncle, came with a little more suspense, because no one else made an American style whiskey with rice, he says. It was a leap of faith to see how it would turn out.
“It’s hard to imagine there’s a new spirit that hadn’t been done before,” Fruge says.
He thought it would be worth the risk and patience.
“As my grandfather used to say, ‘My nickel is in the jukebox, I have to dance to the music,” Fruge says.
Fruge is from a family of generations of farmers, and they’ve 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 launch a distillery, built on the original 20-acre farm. They released a vodka in 2018, and recently released a whiskey. Fruge spoke to Gambit about farming and distilling in Acadiana.
Gambit: How did your family get into farming?
Mike Fruge: My great-great-uncle John literally traveled to Louisiana in a covered wagon after the Civil War. They came to Louisiana for cheaper land. A lot of people did during that era. They were highland farmers, meaning they planted stuff without water. That’s what they were used to. They got to Louisiana, and it was difficult to grow those crops since it was so wet. Eventually there was this style of rice called providence rice. You would create the best environment you could, you’d plant the rice crop, but you depended on Mother Nature to provide the water. But providence did not always do that, so that’s why they called it providence rice.
That’s what started the entire rice industry in South Louisiana. By the turn of the century, it was becoming an industry. Not just for us, but rice was a big deal. It lasted till the 1960s, give or take.
The farm transferred to my great uncle, to my grandfather. He farmed rice his whole life. My dad struggled with it. In general, all sorts of farming through the ’80s struggled. Many farmers went out of business. My dad went into the oil field. When my brother and I got out of college, the family was still involved in farming, but not in a big way. I didn’t think I’d actually be a farmer.
Crawfish farming was in its infancy. It was in a pioneer stage. My brother and I started doing that while we were in college to earn extra money. We could earn more money doing that than working for minimum wage. Doing that, we sort of put ourselves though the last couple of years of college. My brother loves the dirt. He’s a tractor diver. It’s what he always wanted to do. He was committed to it. I pretty much started the crawfish farm, and my brother was my partner. We started shipping crawfish all over the place. Long story short, 30 years later, we built the farm back up to roughly 4,000 acres of rice and crawfish. We sell an awful lot of crawfish in Texas, and that’s our main business.
Gambit: How did you get interested in distilling?
Fruge: Now, every farmer is a crawfish farmer. We’re not innovative in that anymore. 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 somebody asked me, “I wonder if we can make vodka out of this stuff?”
I started doing some research. I found a convention about craft distilling. I got on an airplane and flew to the American Distilling Institute (convention). It was in Baltimore that year. I started asking about rice, and literally 100% of the people looked at me like I had three heads. They were like, “Rice? Never heard of it. Don’t know.” Somebody was like, “Somebody made some sake.” There was no information.
If you understand spirits production, spirits are a farm-based product. Whiskey was the last step of trying to preserve a crop. You grow a grain, you fed the animals, you ate some, you saved as much as you could. When it started getting old, you made beer with it. Then you took what was left over and distilled it. That was a commodity you could later trade for whatever you needed. That’s how the whiskey industry was made.
Before Prohibition, there were 10,000 distilleries in America. Post-Prohibition, there were only three, and they were controlled by big money. It wasn’t until the beer industry got disrupted by the microbreweries that the rules changed and allowed craft people to try this. The point is, rice never got its shot.
I started studying the market, and I realized there’s wheat whiskey, rye whiskey, corn whiskey. There’s bourbon. There’s high bourbon, low bourbon, there’s Scotch. There’s malted barley. There are all these spirits from all over the world, but there are no rice spirits made using the American style of a yeasted beer. In Asia, there’s shochu and sake, but those are all bacterial fermentations. They’re totally different than the American style. The flavor profile is different. I said, well, I don’t know if anybody has done this before, I don’t know why they didn’t, but there must be a reason. Surely, the biggest manufacturers have tested this, and maybe they didn’t like it. I was like, I am going to find out.
I thought maybe there was some problem with fermentation or distillation. I thought for sure we’d learn what the problem was. It turns out, there doesn’t seem to be a problem.
I had a couple of hunches. I am a hobby cook. Making a good beer or making a good whiskey is like making a sauce. You have to go on some instincts. There are some varieties of rice that I thought would go well with this. We tested six or seven of them, and we found a couple that we liked. And low and behold, it literally made the best vodka I have tasted.
We released the vodka to the public almost immediately. We have been selling vodka to people in Louisiana since September 2018. It’s building a following. Any time we blind taste the vodka against anything, we finish in the top. We knew we had a good vodka, but there are thousands of vodka brands. Vodka by itself, it’s hard to be unique, even if it tastes great. But the whiskey — there’s nothing else like it. There’s no other 100% rice whiskey anywhere. That’s a unique product, and it turns out that it’s pretty good.
Gambit: But you were thinking about making whiskey when you started?
Fruge: The whiskey coming straight off the still is amazing. It has a great flavor. Bourbon does not have that. You have to age it. But even though we had a great product straight off the still, we decided to put it in barrels and see what happens.
I was fortunate to have another business so we could be patient and take our time and produce something real and authentic. Most great whiskey, the youngest profile you’re going to find is four years. So I wanted to get to four years, and that’s what we did. The whiskey we’re releasing right now is a four-year-old 100% rice whiskey in the American style, aged in new American white oak barrels.
I like the flavor profile of a bourbon. If we can match the sweetness of our rice — it has a natural sweetness — to that caramel, butterscotch, all those great flavors that come out of whiskey barrel, I think we’ll have something pretty good. We’re real proud of it.
Gambit: How has the reception been?
Fruge: We captured a fairly significant following locally in Acadiana. Lots of people adopted us. Restaurants put us on the menu. We did better than expected. People told their friends, and it’s been slowly building.
You have to understand, whatever people are drinking now, they’re committed to. You’re trying to change their mind. That’s a long game. If you’re a beer drinker, and you drink a national brand, your dad probably drank it. Your friends drink it. You can’t give them something else. They’re committed. That’s our big challenge. Getting people to try it and change their mind is a long process.
We have a lot of traction with the bourbon community. Every town seems to have a bourbon society. We’re very active with the local branch and we’re reaching out. Any of the bars that pour bourbon on an educated level, all those places are naturals for us. For us to be a successful brand, we’re not trying to be a neighborhood craft distillery where people hang out at the tasting room. We don’t have a tasting room. We’re in the middle of nowhere. My plan is to convert current whiskey drinkers to our brand. It takes a long time, but we’re in it for the long haul.
Hard seltzers are a go-to drink for many in New Orleans.
Gambit: Now that this whiskey is out there, what’s next?
Fruge: We have some high rice bourbon we made. We’re going to test that. We’ll see how it turned out. We’ll see what kind of yield we’ll get. We’ll look at some different finishes for our whiskey. But mostly we’re telling the story about this whiskey.
Opening a distillery and making whiskey in quantity is a daunting challenge. It takes a lot of commitment and courage. You’re probably looking at a 10-year commitment before you know whether you’re going to be successful or not. Most people can’t get financing for that kind of time frame. Nobody’s that patient. I just happen to be from a different point of view. It’s not easy. We struggle all the time and try 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 located on our farm. The same piece of ground our ancestors settled on. We’re building out the distillery one piece at a time. We do not have a tasting room. We do not offer tours to the public. We wanted to focus on building the brand and converting consumers. The public is not going to drive out to our farm in great numbers. We have to go meet them.
For more information, visit jtmeleck.net.
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