When Lula opened its doors last February, New Orleans and all of the Deep South got something new—a restaurant that’s also a distillery. Operating much like a brewpub, the making of alcohol constitutes the disciplined business in the back while its consumption shapes the party up front. Through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, guests can watch the giant copper still in action, with base spirit flowing from one of the two 3,000-liter fermentation tanks.
Lula makes three types of alcohol: vodka, gin and rum. Despite what many think, the establishment isn’t named after anyone’s grandmother, but after the sugar mill in Belle Rose, Louisiana where the distillery gets its raw cane sugar (near Donaldsonville, where Jess Bourgeois, one of the three owners, grew up). Nonetheless, Lula gets frequent requests for branded tees by customers with a more familial connection.
“‘My aunt, my great grandmother…’” Erin Bourgeois, co-owner and Jess’ wife, recalls. “After the family went to New York recently and were seen on the Today Show wearing our T-shirts, just waving, we had so many people email us. ‘Can you mail me a T-shirt?’”
In the room that holds the still, the comforting smell of raw cane sugar shines almost brighter than the copper. The taste, as well, dominates Lula’s entire line of spirits—including the vodka, which traditionally is praised for more or less an absence of flavor. On the wall in the dining hall, clear glass jars display the botanicals used to flavor the house gin: bitter lemon and sweet orange peel, angelica root, coriander, orris root (which smells like violets), black pepper and, of course, juniper. For those who think gin tastes like pine trees, juniper is usually the reason. At Lula, the distillers tone down the woodsy flavors, focusing more on florals and citrus instead.
“My dad always drank gin—London dry gins—and I never took to them,” Jess Bourgeois explains. “Frankly, I found them offensive. And I think a lot of people do. That’s why we chose to use the ratio of botanicals that we use because we wanted our gin to be approachable and more like a flavored vodka. My mom would have never put gin in her mouth—ever—but she drinks a Bees Knees here every time she comes.”
The Bees Knees, one of Lula’s most popular cocktails, is made with gin, lemon juice and honey. It’s batched and served on draft, like in a brewpub. Lula also bottles cocktails. They currently offer two: a classic gin and tonic and a Negroni. Jess Bourgeois just acquired a pump to replace the centrifuge he’s been using to clarify fruit juices for cocktails, where, through finer and finer filters, even ruby red grapefruit comes out a pale yellow. Discussing endless possibilities, he displays the enthusiasm of a kid with a new science kit (back when there were no iPhones). That energy came in handy when the custom still they ordered came in from Germany—in thousands of parts.
“They shipped it over in pieces with pictures of how to put it together, like an Ikea project,” Erin Bourgeois remembers. “It took six months to a year to build.”
“Everything either fits together or it doesn’t,” Jess Bourgeois continues. “You can’t just put a pipe up there and make it fit. It’s all about exactly where things go. I think we had 50 or 60 different pipes alone, so the further along we got, the easier it was to find where they went.”
“But it was a progression,” he says. “Three steps forward and two steps back still keeps you moving forward.”
Part of the process of opening Lula involved making a change to state law. In order to have a distillery adjacent to a restaurant, the Bourgeoises along with their business partner—distiller and Baton Rouge physician Bear Caffery—worked to have a bill passed in the Louisiana legislature in 2015.
“It was like civics class in high school all over again,” Erin Bourgeois remembers. “How does a law get made? How do you pass a bill? We found a representative who sponsored our bill and it took about a year before it finally passed on the very last day of the legislative session.”
The Bourgeoises met Caffery on a trip to New Zealand with mutual friends in 2009. Caffery had been an avid home brewer until he realized he was allergic to gluten and switched to home distilling, which is legal over there.
The distillers clearly share an experimental approach, as Jess Bourgeois explains:
“Every time we make a rum we can make it taste different by utilizing our still differently, which is neat, but also makes you wonder—always—is it going to be the same, and why don’t we make it different, and could we make it better? How can we make it cleaner and smoother while keeping the same flavor profile?”
Guests who enjoy Lula’s spirits in the bar and restaurant can buy bottles of gin, vodka or rum from the distillery in the back. Because of Louisiana’s distribution laws, they can only be sold at Lula’s, and therefore won’t appear in local stores any time soon.
On July 20, Lula will host a Tales of the Cocktail spirited dinner, offering its own spirits in classic cocktails paired with Southern-style courses, including shrimp, greens, scallops and quail.