Louisiana farm uses leftover rice to make Vodka
BRANCH, La. (AP) — An old saying says that if life gives you lemons, then you make lemonade, but what do you do if life gives you rice?
Many in south Louisiana would say you make a gumbo, but one Branch business has decided to do something different with its excess rice. In July, Michael and Mark Fruge, owners of Fruge Aquafarms and Fruge Seafood, launched a new sister company, Fruge Spirits, and used that rice for a new product: rice vodka they call J.T. Meleck.
“We’ve been working on this for about two years and we went to market in July,” Michael Fruge said. “I’m in seafood, so I see a lot of the foodie trends, and this is something that has always intrigued me.”
Fruge’s family has been farming rice in this Acadia Parish community since 1896. They expanded into using the fields for crawfish as many farmers have done over the past century since commercial rice farming became popular, but making alcohol from rice was a new concept for the Fruges and fairly unique for vodka.
Only a few distilleries worldwide make vodka from rice, and it’s been done in Louisiana as well, but Fruge has a theory as to why distilling rice vodka hasn’t caught on even more.
Large-scale rice farming outside of Louisiana didn’t begin to really take off in America until the 1910s and 1920s, and prohibition stopped farmers from experimenting with leftover rice that was beginning to go bad like they did for generations through grains like barley, wheat and corn. Having gone to conventions and from talking to people, Fruge wondered why rice vodka wasn’t more common. ” ‘Is there something wrong with it?’ So we went ahead and distilled some and thought it was pretty good. So it must be that no one ever really tried,” he said.
The desire to add value to his rice crop was what pushed Fruge into venturing into this territory of spirits.
From that came J.T. Meleck, named for Fruge’s great-great-uncle John Meleck.
Local supermarkets, including Rouses, Champagne’s and Nunu’s, are selling the spirits after successful tastings held at their locations. Fruge said they’ve begun to take off in Acadiana and are moving into the Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and New Orleans markets.
Vodka lovers have said J.T. Meleck is smooth, has no smell and needs very little dirt to make a good martini, which are all hallmarks of a good vodka.
“We have a really good tasting product,” he said. “People who try it really like it. What makes it do that, I don’t know. Maybe we got lucky, but we put a lot of effort into it. So I hope we did a little more than just get lucky.”
Louisiana’s rice farmers produce hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rice every year. In 2014, 3.4 billion pounds of rice was produced at a total value of more than $670 million.
However, according Jeremy Hebert, county agricultural agent in Acadia Parish at the LSU AgCenter, the profit margin for rice is small and having another product that rice can be used for may help farmers offset their costs.
“It usually costs between $600 and $700 an acre to grow rice, and rice is selling cheap,” Hebert said. “Any time you have these value-added products or a niche market, it’s a good thing. These farmers need more ways to help offset the costs.”
The Fruges also are working on a rice whiskey that will hopefully see fruition once they’re finished aging in a couple years. Fruge said they have about 9,000 cases of whiskey that they began aging this March and looking for the day it’s ready.
“No one knows how long it’s going to take. So we’re aging them in barrels and tasting and testing right now. No one knows if it’s going to be good or not. It’s an expensive experiment, I guess, but I had this intuition and decided to go for it.”
The goal though is to someday make J.T. Meleck a national brand, he said. Right now, the amount of rice needed to meet demand is easily being met, but Fruge said if it really takes off they may buy from other farmers or contract out farmers to help them grow more, which would further boost the local rice industry.
“We’ve been in the market since July and I think we’re doing pretty well considering the territory we’ve been able to cover,” he said. “It’ll be years before we’re a national brand, but that’s the goal. You can make a lot of vodka out of 9 million pounds of rice, and we haven’t even scratched that. But if we do run out, there’s plenty more rice out there we can use.”