by Enrico Villamaino
When you’re in in Acadia Parish in Louisiana, the very heart of Cajun country, and you find yourself with an abundance of surplus rice, the obvious question presents itself: Should you use the rice to make gumbo or should you use it to make jambalaya?
For Michael Frugé, owner and operator of Frugé Aquafarms and Frugé Seafood, a less conventional answer became a decidedly exciting new enterprise. The native of Branch, LA, launched a new sister company, Frugé Spirits LLC, and used that rice for a new product – a rice vodka they’re calling J.T. Meleck.
Introduced in July 2018, the vodka is the namesake of Frugé’s great-great-grandfather John Meleck. In the 1870s, after the social and economic upheaval of the Civil War, Meleck migrated from Indiana in a covered wagon south to Louisiana to try his hand at farming. Consequently, Frugé is a fourth generation farmer whose family has been growing rice in Acadia Parish since 1896. He and his wife Courtney have expanded into using the fields on his 4,000 acre plot for crawfish farming, as many rice farmers in the region have done in the last 80 years. Such diversification is becoming more common, since the profit margin for rice is relatively small and finding another marketable product that rice can be used for may help farmers offset their costs.
Making alcohol from rice, however, was a new direction for Frugé and somewhat peculiar for vodka.
While rice is the well-known base for such alcohols as sake, the Japanese rice wine, only a few distilleries worldwide make vodka from rice. While it has been done in Louisiana before, Frugé has his thoughts as to why distilling rice vodka hasn’t caught on even more. He explained that large scale rice farming outside of Louisiana didn’t begin to really take off in America until the 1910s and 1920s. At this time, Prohibition kept people from experimenting with surplus rice as they had always done before with other crops such as barley, wheat and corn. Rice never really got its fair shot.
“Originally, I wasn’t dead set on making vodka,” explained Frugé. “My original thought was simply ‘What can I make out of my rice?’” Several years ago, he tried his hand at vodka. “I just happen to like vodka, and vodka made from my rice is extremely good. The essence of the rice is left on the nose, it has a special smell. It’s certainly not sake. It makes for a great sipping vodka. It also needs very little dirt to make a good martini – a hallmark of a good vodka.”
In less than a half year of distribution, J.T. Meleck has enjoyed a popular reception in its local markets. Local supermarket chain Rouses is selling J.T. Meleck after successful tastings held at their locations. Frugé said they’ve begun moving into the Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and New Orleans markets. He hopes to expand that distribution to include parts of Texas next year. He would like to someday see J.T. Meleck become a national brand.
The Frugés also are looking to expand their offerings and are working on a rice whiskey that they’ll be aging for a couple of years. “We don’t know how long it’s going to take. We’re aging them in barrels right now. We’ll be tasting and testing it as time goes on. It’s an expensive experiment!” Frugé chuckled.
The whiskey can wait, however. There’s plenty to keep them busy with J.T. Meleck.
“You can make a lot of vodka out of the rice we’ve got. But if we do run out, there’s plenty more rice out there we can use,” he said.