THIBODAUX — It seems fitting, somehow, that a distillery is in the middle of a sugar-cane field.
Tom Donner and his wife, Elizabeth, along with Henry Peltier and his wife, Jennifer, were sitting around sipping rum after one of Tom Donner’s Ironman competitions when the idea struck.
“It was a stroke of madness,” Tom Donner said of the idea of building a distillery in Thibodaux, an idea that blossomed into reality this summer.
The building, full of gleaming copper and stainless steel distilling equipment, is the culmination of years of hard work, including navigating the labyrinthine permitting processes and changing a state law that allowed only one distillery in the state to offer tastings and sell its product on the distillery premises.
“This idea just didn’t die,” Henry Peltier said. “It almost did, and it almost killed us.”
But the Donner-Peltier Distillery is a reality on St. Patrick Highway, and it’s nearing its inaugural run of a vodka made from Louisiana long-grain rice.
Dubbed Oryza, the Latin word for rice, the vodka is the result of a complicated process that takes long-grain rice and makes it suitable for fermentation and distilling. One batch of the vodka, which is naturally gluten-free, will take 1,000 pounds of rice. Oh, and 17 stages of distillation.
“There’s a lot of process improvement with the vodka,” said lead distiller Jason W. Sanner, adding that many stages of refinement will make Oryza “one of the cleanest, most refined vodkas you’ll ever taste.”
The distillery plans to market the vodka at less than $30 per 750-milliliter bottle.
Early next year, the distillery plans its first runs of rum, which will be called Rougaroux, a riff on the Cajun French term for werewolf, and has plans to branch out into gin, absinthe and whiskey.
All of its liquors will be made using Louisiana products, such as the rice from Crowley for Oryza and Lafourche Parish sugar, some of it grown by the Peltier family, in Rougaroux. The gin and other liquors will include a mix of Louisiana botanicals and products — the recipes aren’t finalized yet — some of which will be grown on-site.
Both Tom Donner and Henry Peltier plan to keep their day jobs as a neurosurgeon and pediatrician, respectively, while their wives run the distillery, adjacent bar and tasting room, run tours of the distillery and sell merchandise.
Sanner and John Couchot, a veteran distiller most recently at Rogue Ales in Portland, Ore., will oversee the giant room of distilling equipment, which was custom-made by Kothe Distilling Technologies in Germany and shipped to Thibodaux.
“It’s the biggest sold in North America,” Tom Donner said of the dizzying array of tanks, stills and other equipment.
The larger 3,000-liter still, Sanner said, can churn out 1,400 bottles of vodka per day.
It’s also all fully automated, Sanner said. That is critical to managing both the quality of the product and the number of hours the staff must spend in the distillery. The setup includes a huge steam generator, which cranks out 2.5 million Btu of heat for the stills. At full capacity, the distillery will be able to crank out 125 cases of liquor per day.
“It’s not your normal craft distillery,” which usually start small and build up, Sanner said.
Donner-Pelltier is built with an eye toward expansion and distilling a full line of liquor, which they eventually hope to both sell on-site and distribute to stores, bars and restaurants, a far more ambitious plan than most distilleries start with.
For the Donners and the Peltiers, though, the success started when the building went up and the distilling equipment went in, all in a Lafourche Parish cane field.
Both couples agree that it was very important the distillery be in Thibodaux, where both couples live and where the doctors practice. Equally as important, Jennifer Peltier said, was to keep their liquors Louisiana-centric.
“We wanted to use Louisiana products to support Louisiana,” she said.
And with sugar cane rustling against the sides of the building, it appears Donner-Peltier is off to a good start.