For all of its cocktail history, history-making drinking and bartender-rock stars, New Orleans has been a bit out of the loop when it comes to the production of alcoholic beverages. Jedd Haas, founder of Atelier Vie, a micro-distillery located in the ArtEgg Studios on Broad Street, is changing that.
Noting the success of Old New Orleans Rum and spurred on by the FDA’s de-facto legalization of thujone-free absinthe in 2007 as well as the City of New Orleans’ 2011 decision to permit micro-distilleries in “light and heavy industrial” zones, Haas and his partners quickly set up shop and began the slow drip-drip of getting all the permits and approvals required to fill and label their first bottle of liquor in 2012.
So far, Atelier Vie has five products. Their Buck 25 Vodka is clean, cheap well-vodka for mixed drinks and infusions, vodka being the tabula rasa of spirits, praised mainly for its lack of flavor. Toulouse Red was introduced on Prohibition Repeal Day, December 5. It’s a red absinthe with hibiscus, straightforward in flavor and appropriate for complicated cocktails. Atelier Vie’s traditional absinthe, Toulouse Green, is more complex, with soft cucumber and citrus notes.
“There is such foolishness with absinthe. We can’t just call it ‘absinthe,’ it has to have another word, like ‘absinthe verte,’ to get approved,” Haas explains. “The compound in absinthe that supposedly made people crazy, thujone, comes from one ingredient—wormwood—but the [thujone] compound is heavy and technically is left in the still—there are only trace amounts in the liquor—and the funny thing is that thujone also is present in gin because of the juniper berries, and nobody ever makes a fuss about that.”
Haas and his partners discovered that wormwood grows quite well in Louisiana’s climate. A local farmer has been growing part of Atelier Vie’s supply for almost two years now, and the distillery has its own wormwood patch—mainly for show—out by the railroad tracks behind the ArtEgg Studios.
The most labor-intensive of the distillery’s offerings is Riz, a white (clear, not aged) whiskey made with rice from Crowley. Seventy-five pounds of rice are boiled in a 55-gallon drum and then enzymes are added to further break down the rice. After yeast is added, the rice mixture ferments for several weeks in sealed barrels and is then run through the still twice. Haas is certain Atelier Vie’s Riz is the first whiskey produced in Louisiana since Prohibition, although he’s not completely alone in producing rice whiskey.
“A few months after Riz came out, I heard of another,” Haas says. “It’s made by a Cambodian man from Lake Charles who moved to Wisconsin.”
Atelier Vie’s most outstanding product is Euphrosine Gin #9, which won a Gold Medal at the American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA) in March and another Gold Medal and Best of Category at the American Distilling Institute’s (ADI) Eighth Annual Judging of Craft Spirits in April. Euphrosine Gin #9 relies heavily on a spice called grains of paradise, a peppery seed that’s native to West Africa, for flavor.
Distribution is one of the micro-distillery’s biggest challenges. Each bottle must essentially be sold three times: first to the distributor, then to the retailer and finally to the consumer.
“If the distributor or the restaurant or the bartender doesn’t know and like your product, chances are slim that it will ever get poured into a glass,” Haas says.
Atelier Vie hopes to launch two additional spirits this year (or as soon as all partners can agree that their recipes are good enough). First, a Swiss-style white (clear) absinthe, which historically became popular when the crackdown on absinthe began and its signature color (an addition, as all alcohol comes out of the still clear) raised an unnecessary “green flag.” Second, Atelier Vie is developing another gin that goes under the name K-Gin (pronounced “Cajun”) with warm notes from lavender and cardamom.
“With all the recognition and awards we’ve received, we don’t want to put anything less than excellent on the market,” Haas says. “That’s how awards are supposed to work. They raise the bar.”