Louisiana. Next to Kentucky, Louisiana is the best place to drink bourbon. Bourbon’s popularity started in Louisiana, as a very thirsty market down river from Kentucky. While many bourbon historians claim the moniker Bourbon originated from a county or region in Kentucky, Michael Veach claims the timelines don’t add up, and that the whiskey whose mashbill is predominated with corn gets its name from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. That whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street. Whether or not Veach is correct, what we do know is that cognac was originally the drink of choice in Louisiana, but that once Louisiana became a part of the United States and trade with Kentucky grew, together with some bad years for grapes in France which resulted in cognac shortages, bourbon supplanted cognac in our bars, and in our traditional cocktails, and indeed in our hearts, in Louisiana. A beverage ever present in households, hunting camps, and seal-a-meal bags smuggled into Tiger Stadium before liquor was legal there, bourbon is a huge part of Louisiana culture. Even when bourbon had been supplanted from the national beverage scene, it was still big in Louisiana as I can attest growing up in the 1980’s.
And it is no coincidence that a Louisiana company, Sazerac, owns three award winning bourbon distilleries – Buffalo Trace, 1792 Barton, and Bowman. They bought those distilleries before bourbon got big again on the national scene, largely because they knew their local market.
Louisiana has just needed bourbon, and lots of it, for the last 200 years or so. It’s in our milk punch on Christmas Day. It’s on every tailgate during a party. It’s at every duck and deer hunting camp. Even when I was in high school, ten year Old Charter was a treat over the regular eight year old before a football game or a camping trip.
However, Louisiana is definitely not the place to make bourbon. Our water is generally not right for it without purification, and it is way too hot and humid for proper aging. Louisiana is of course a natural place to make rum – there is plenty of sugar cane, and the climate matches those climes of the Caribbean where traditional rums are made.
I have tried two attempts by different producers to create a Louisiana whiskey. The first I tried was LA 1 Whiskey, which was awful and apparently had some artificial colors added. It was distilled locally and I think not aged properly. The second was Old Mississippi Floated Whiskey, where barrels of bourbon mash whiskey is second fill casks were “floated” down the Mississippi and placed in port pipes for finishing in a warehouse in New Orleans. Again, not good at all.
I first found out about Sugarfield Spirits on Louisiana Bourbon Collective on Facebook. We have quite a few local distilleries in Louisiana, making rum, vodka, and even gin out of local sugar and molasses, with Bayou Rum in Lacassine being probably the largest. They age some of their rum in used Buffalo Trace casks and are putting out great products. But when I found out Sugarfield had their own bourbon, I was skeptical but willing to try it. I stopped into the Gonzales distillery (right outside of Baton Rouge) on my way back from New Orleans a few weeks ago.
Sugarfield is a new outfit that just opened this year. So, obviously, this bourbon is sourced, because, wait for it, it is straight and aged over four years. When I went to the distillery I was able to find out the source – Davis Valley Distilling in western Virginia, just a stone’s throw away from the Kentucky border. The master distiller at Sugarfield did some training there. They have also distilled a run of their own mashbill, and four years from now that bourbon will be ready to drink.
The barrels are shipped directly to Sugarfield where the bourbon is bottled. I have bottles of batches 1 and 2, which are single barrels. Batch 3 will be a blend of three different barrels, and I got to sample some of the whiskey directly from one of those barrels. Batch 3 will complete its last few months of aging in Sugarfield’s climate controlled warehouse and distilling room.
Both batches 1 and 2 are a healthy 92 proof.
Batch 1 – medium amber in color. Super thick legs which tells me this is a well made spirit and likely barreled at a lower proof, say 110 proof. Very old school. The sample straight from one of the barrels confirms this. On the nose, nice vanilla and caramel, not craft smelling at all. On the palate, there is a nice mouthfeel and plenty of traditional bourbon flavors, big vanilla, light caramel, some baking spice, very light rye undertones, with nice cinnamon on the finish. A little bit of craft aftertaste, but much less than a lot of craft bourbons I have tried. One of the owners described this as a very traditional bourbon flavor profile, and I agree with him. Lots of flavor at this low proof yet it is very smooth and easy to give it the old Kentucky chew.
Batch 2 – a little darker than batch 1. A nice amber color, same thick legs on the swirl. Nose is similar to batch 1, but has more burnt sugar notes. Very nice. On the palate, lots of vanilla and some slight caramel, but it has “wood sugar” notes that I taste in Woodford Reserve bourbons. On the finish is less cinnamon and some nice oak notes. The finish on batch 2 lingers a little longer as well. The owners think batch 1 is the better of the two batches. While the Soltau brothers know bourbon, I respectfully disagree. I think Batch 2 is the better bourbon. It has a whole lot of character – it might have been born yesterday (being aged only four years) but I feel like this bourbon has been up all night to say the least. It drinks like an eight to ten year old bourbon.
But I am splitting hairs here. This Louisiana bottled bourbon is the best Louisiana bottled whiskey BY FAR that I have ever tried- either batch. Or the next batch, part of which I tasted straight out of the barrel. Just trying one barrel going into the mix, I am sure it will be good.
Kudos to Sugarfield Spirits for doing their whiskey the right way, sourcing a well made straight bourbon whiskey with some age on it, not overly watering it down, and making sure they put out a good product instead of just putting out something they could call Louisiana whiskey. As they wrote on the label, bourbon is special to them. This product shows that is true.
And, in true Louisiana fashion for a state whose fans of the flagship university’s football team empty bars and stadiums of beer and liquor around the country, they say on the label, “We prefer it in a glass but it’s also good straight out of the bottle.” They know their tailgating and nights out at the camp crowd very well.
Right now (as far as I know), you can only get Sugarfield bourbon, rum and vodka at the distillery. However, in the next few months, their products will start being distributed at retail in Louisiana from what Andrew Soltau told me when I visited the distillery. I have tried all of their spirits and recommend them all.
Even their bourbon. In the old days, bourbon was shipped to Louisiana in barrels and then served in either bottles or glasses. It still is, at Sugarfield Spirits. Its a new whiskey but has a bit of history on it. And something you will be glad is on your bar.