May 23, 2024

kruakhunyahashland

Free For All Food

Fourth generation farmer showcases his rice in J.T. Meleck’s award-winning vodka, whiskey | Business

J.T. Meleck isn’t yet a household name or tourist destination, but Michael Frugé has high hopes for the brand of vodka and whiskey he’s distilling in the rural Acadia Parish community of Branch.

Frugé, a fourth-generation farmer, had been mulling over the idea of creating craft spirits out of the rice he grows for several years as a way to diversify his business.

“We’ve been here for almost 150 years now,” Frugé said. “And so many people have asked the same question: How or why did you end up doing this? And it was just to add value to the crop that we were already growing so that we weren’t just another commodity that was dependent on the marketplace.”

In 2017, Frugé distilled his first batch of vodka. After experimenting with a few recipes, he launched J.T. Meleck rice vodka in 2018.



ACA.jtmeleck39.adv

Mike Fruge with JT Meleck Distillery stands next to the masher tank while talking about the vodka and whiskey that they are distileling at JT Meleck Distillery on Monday, December 21, 2020 in Branch, La..




The vodka won three of the American Distilling Institute’s most prestigious awards in the vodka category of this year’s Judging of Craft Spirits competition: the double gold medal, best of class and best of category.

With those awards under his belt, Frugé feels confident about the future of his brand, which gained more local recognition when his team paused production to make hand sanitizer during the pandemic.

“There’s no other commercially successful rice vodka or spirit in America,” Frugé said. “In Asia, there are lots, but rice farmers didn’t get started in America until the turn of the century, right before Prohibition happened.”



ACA.jtmeleck30.adv

Mike Fruge with JT Meleck Distillery talks about the vodka and whiskey that they are distileling at JT Meleck Distillery on Monday, December 21, 2020 in Branch, La..




Frugé hopes to make a name for himself not just for rice vodka but also for aged whiskey made with rice.

Like most craft distillers, Frugé got started with a clear liquor to ensure the financial success of the distillery. Vodka can be distilled and bottled within a few hours, making it much easier to recoup money compared to whiskey, which takes years to age prior to bottling.

Frugé has hundreds of barrels of whiskey aging at the distillery, but it will be a few years more before he can bottle and sell them.

“It’s a very big project. It’s very risky,” Frugé said. “But we’ve been tasting the whiskey as we go, and we really like what we’re seeing. I’m just crazy enough and fortunate enough to keep going with it.”



ACA.jtmeleck191.adv

Barrels full of whiskey at JT Meleck Distillery on Monday, December 21, 2020 in Branch, La..




The distilling company is named for his great-great uncle, John T. Meleck, who began farming rice in 1896 on the same land his family continues to farm today.

Meleck was among the first to farm rice on marshland in south Louisiana. He farmed on just 20 acres around the turn of the century.

Four generations later, Frugé and his family are farming on about 4,000 acres of land. They were also early pioneers of crawfish farming in rice fields, which they continue to do today.

Frugé is branding his spirits as grain-to-glass and farm-to-front porch. The descriptions are a nod to the farm-to-table movement that promotes local food at restaurants. The movement has more recently inspired farmers across the country to use their crops to distill liquor.

“We’re authentic. There’s not many distilleries that are,” Frugé said. “We’re not just pushing the vodka because we have it. We’re pushing it because we think it’s one of the best on the planet.”



ACA.jtmeleck232.adv

Mike Fruge with JT Meleck Distillery talks about the vodka and whiskey that they are distileling at JT Meleck Distillery on Monday, December 21, 2020 in Branch, La..




Although Frugé considers himself to be a craft distiller, he also wants to compete with the big brands of spirits.

“I want it to be both a very good craft spirit and a very good product,” Frugé said. “Consistency is how we achieve that. My biggest fear is that I’ll put a product out there that’s not consistent.”

J.T. Meleck is located in a few industrial warehouses along La. 35 in Branch. It is not currently open for tours, although Frugé has already cleared land to build a visitors center and tasting room.



ACA.jtmeleck20.adv

Mike Fruge with JT Meleck Distillery talks about the vodka and whiskey that they are distileling at JT Meleck Distillery on Monday, December 21, 2020 in Branch, La..




The retail success of his vodka, and later his whiskey, will determine how long it may until J.T. Meleck becomes a destination for locals and travelers. That could be a decade out, he said. It’s fine by Frugé, who views this as a long-term game.

Because the distillery’s rural location isn’t ideal for tourists, Frugé is hoping to open a small-scale distillery in Lafayette with a tasting room and merchandise space in the near future. Frugé hopes to open or at least make significant headway on that project by the end of 2021, although the timeline will depend on the pandemic.

The distillery is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquor per month, but Frugé is still only using a small fraction of what he grows.



ACA.jtmeleck206.adv

Bottles wait to be filled with Vodka at JT Meleck Distillery on Monday, December 21, 2020 in Branch, La..




Frugé used about 4,000 pounds of rice to make vodka this year out of a total of about 9 million pounds grown.

“We got a lot of work to do to use up our whole crop,” Frugé said. “But I don’t just think that we could use up our crop. I actually think we could create an industry here. I’m not on a mission to change the world, but I am on a mission to add value to the local economy because I want to see it get passed on to the next generation.”



ACA.jtmeleck97.adv

Mike Fruge with JT Meleck Distillery stands in front of the distiller while talking about the vodka and whiskey that they are making at JT Meleck Distillery on Monday, December 21, 2020 in Branch, La..




J.T. Meleck vodka is available at several restaurants and bars in Acadiana, where some bartenders have used the rice vodka in drinks that pay tribute to south Louisiana. The distillery’s website also includes creative cocktail recipes to make at home.

As for Frugé, he prefers drinking his vodka in the more traditional form of a martini.

J.T. Meleck is available by the bottle at grocery stores and liquor stores across Louisiana. Visit jtmeleck.net/locate to find a retailer.