How many of us can’t wait to leave home, but then circumstances involving a global pandemic sent us right back to where we began.
Joining on this episode, sponsored by Louisiana Tourism, is Olivia Stewart, President of Oxbow Rum Distillery. After a childhood surrounded by sugar cane, she thought her future was in the big city. Now she is helming her family’s rum distillery in Louisiana. How did she get there? You’ll have to hear it from her!
Have you ever been to Louisiana? I love it for its Creole and Cajun culture, Mardi Gras, and the beautiful city of New Orleans, but the Pelican State offers so much more, including the amazing live music scene covering everything from Jazz to Swamp pop and Zydeco, a fascinating history combining diverse cultures, over 400 festivals a year and adventures including kayaking on the bayous and lakes, hiking in the many National and State Parks throughout the state or the newly launched Louisiana Civil Rights Trail.
If you didn’t know already, it’s the home of the cocktail, not only the Sazerac, gumbo, jambalaya, Tabasco hot sauce, King Cake, and beignets! Louisiana offers a food and drink experience that is second to none. Meet craft distillers, brewers, and mixologists who are working with local traditions and making a name for themselves on the Louisiana Culinary Trails or Louisiana Libations Trail.
Let the endless beauty of Louisiana feed your soul and inspire you. You can check out more by visiting louisianatravel.com
Watch it on YouTube
Cocktail of the Week: Oxbow Rum Daiquiri
Oxbow Rum Daiquiri
- 2 oz Oxbow Rhum Louisiane
- 3/4 oz lime juice
- 1/2 oz sugar syrup
- Add all the ingredients to a shaker
- Add ice
- Shake, shake, shake
- Strain into a cocktail glass
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Olivia. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
This transcript is sponsored by:
Susan: It’s wonderful to have you on the show. I’m so glad you could be here all the way from Louisiana.
Olivia: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Susan: Of course, of course. So I can’t wait to hear all about Oxbow Distillery and your journey there. I always start at the same place – where you were born, where you grew up, how you got into the business. So why don’t we just start there.
Olivia: Sure. I mean, that actually has a lot of relevance to why I’m doing what I’m doing now. So I was born and raised, well, born in a hospital, but raised out on the farm on my family’s sugar cane farm, which has been in my family since 1859. And been run by my family and my ancestors ever since.
Today my dad runs it. I grew up out there running through the fields, just seeing him stress out every harvest and things weren’t always as good as they are now. So seeing, as a child, the year I was born, we were the dead last mill in the state sugar mill. Now, actually last year we were number one. So being able to see that over the course of my lifetime and see my dad do that has had such a profound impact on me as a person. But by no means was it in my plans, or what I wanted to do with my life at all.
Susan: Wait, wait. Hold on. Hold on. We’re going to unpack some of that a little bit. You said you were born on the farm.
Olivia: It’s in Pointe Coupée Parish which is outside of Baton Rouge and known for an ox-bow lake that it has called Falls River because it’s not a river actually. It’s known for its super, super rich fertile soil. Because that Mississippi River would just change course and wind and deposit all this sediment. So there’s all this sugar cane there because it’s so fertile. So that’s what I grew up around.
Susan: You said your dad had the sugarcane farm. Tell me what it was like. I mean, what, what kind of sugar, I’m sorry to be ignorant about sugar cane, but is there only one kind of sugar cane? What kind of sugar was he producing in the farm, and what was it being used for?
Olivia: Sure. So sure there’s plenty of varieties, new modern varieties that have been researched. Non GMO. Nothing is GMO, it’s not allowed in the US. It’s just natural breeding to find the right varieties. There’s thousands and, for about a decade, every decade there’s the main one.
It’s not like it looks very different, slight changes, but it’s really all about your sucrose content, your freeze hardiness and disease resistance. We have 2,500 acres on Alma. That’s the name of the farm. And we also have the mill. So there’s only 11 mills left in the state, and we’re the only mill with its own fields cultivating its own fields.
Yes, so we’re able to have this single estate status here at the distillery because we do own the fields and the mill and the distillery, and no one else in the state does.
Susan: So you grew up around the sugar, and as you were, or as I was inferring, you wanted to get the hell out of Dodge and not be part of this in your later years. So tell me what happened in between.
Olivia: Yes, so, I had a great time growing up around sugar cane. I didn’t really realize it was something different and unusual until probably middle school or something. I would drive in every day to Baton Rouge, which is about 20 miles away and go to primary and secondary school.
I realized about halfway through what we call high school. I just wanted to get out, and also, my dad had three daughters and I grew up with a mindset that like, well, of course I’m not going to take it over. I’m a woman, this is agriculture, this is farming. I’ve never seen a woman in that field here, down here in Louisiana.
I remember people used to ask me that and I’d be like, no, I’m not, I’m not taking that over. It’s not an option. So it just hadn’t, it never even crossed my mind. And I knew I wanted to get out of Baton Rouge.
I went to boarding school and I took this AP Art History class, and it was what I want to do. I want to be an art dealer or a gallerist and live this glamorous life. So, that’s the major I declared in college and I stuck with it. I got my master’s at Sotheby’s in London for Art Business.
Since graduating high school, I was pursuing this career whether through internships or the Masters. Then I finally ended up settling in New York, downtown New York, and worked for an assortment of galleries. I worked for an art consultant, I mean, it was NY till I die, it was like, I’m going to be a big boss, art galleries one day, and that’s it, and then Covid.
Susan: Oh boy. So really recently.
Olivia: Yes, when Covid hit, we were like, oh, let’s move down and just ride this thing out for a few weeks where it’s warmer and in the country. I’d bartended in New Orleans for like nicer, mixologist type places. I had an understanding of spirits and a palate for it, but never worked in this industry, distilling, et cetera, and it was just not a consideration until Covid hit and I moved back down and I saw my dad needed help.
Susan: Was your dad making rum at that point, or still just sugar?
Olivia: So that transition, my dad’s always just been a 100% sugar. I mean, since 1859 when my family first got into it. It’s always been about sugar. That’s the number one product. Molasses is just the byproduct. And so the mill would just sell that on the commodity market, animal feed, things of that nature.
In 2016, a cousin of mine decided to open the distillery and so Alma helped invest in it obviously and would promise the feed stock, and Agricole cane juice rum was definitely like, oh my gosh, we can do this. We’d be one of the first in America. It was very exciting. But as often happens it was underestimated how much opening a distillery costs .
Definitely hit some bumps in the road. My cousin took a step back from everything and things essentially, everything got handed over to my dad to run. And , this is not his thing. He didn’t even drink rum before this.
Susan: I was about going to ask that.
Olivia: He turned around the mill, he spent his entire adult life doing that 40 years, that was in 2019, end of 2018, early 2019. So then, a year later just about is when I came into the picture after a really tough year.
Susan: Now was it, was it called Oxbow then?
Susan: Were you making anything yet?
Olivia: Yes, we, we started selling and making in 2017, so it was under the brand Cane Land. That’s what my cousin decided to call it. And then we ran into some trademark issues with that name. Apparently, there’s a Dutch company making rum in the Caribbean, under the name Cane Island. And that was just too close for comfort.
So we decided to just wash our hands of that and we renamed Three Roll Estate. You can look at it as Cane Land was under my cousin, Three Roll was under my dad and Oxbow is under me. We’d gone through all these changes and definitely even before Covid, I am very candid with people about this. We were already on our knees and Covid just knocked us while we were already down.
Susan: It’s been so tough.
Olivia: Yes, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Susan: Before we get to you coming down and taking control, you said your dad didn’t even drink rum now, now you were producing rum. Was it, as we say here, a busman’s holiday, like your dad is like, okay, enough sugar. Give me an agave spirit. Give me something made not from rum.
Olivia: No, he was just always a classic southern gentleman drinking his bourbon, but only on football Saturdays. Rum was never his drink of choice. It’s interesting because that kind of reflects all of Louisiana’s mentality, even though we’re the top sugar producing state now in the country.
People are just finding out about rum that it can be elevated and elegant and sipped and appreciated. So it’s interesting, but safe to say, now my dad is a convert.
Susan: That’s good. So Covid hit, you were doing your art thing. You’re like, I’m going to live in New York till you die. This is going to be it. COVID hit you came down for a couple weeks. We’re then locked down for like three years. When you got down, had you realized really how bad it was financially, and then thought, okay. Let me go to use my training and I’m going to do this no matter what. I mean, Tell me about that transition and how you even educated yourself to become what you are now.
Olivia: That is just called fight or flight, but I’ll get to that. So we came down, I was furloughed and I started listening in on all of his phone conversations and Zoom calls and obviously I had opinions on what was going on. I’m like, dad, that’s not right. That’s not how you do this. That’s not how to market a brand.
Susan: What do they say? You can take the girl out of New York. You can’t take New York out of the girl.
Olivia: That’s exactly right. I really just bullnosed my way into it. Move over, let me do this, but I mean, gradually. I helped here and there. I would join calls just to help my dad keep track of everything. He’s in his seventies and I just wanted to help be a secretary of sorts and just help him keep track of these things.
We were obviously shut down, the big thing then was pushing the sanitizer, and so I would just drive around Baton Rouge with sanitizer bottles in my car, and I would just walk into places like, here’s a sample, like, if you want more, here’s the pricing.
Just driving around. And that’s really how it started. And then probably about a month into it doing that. I came down with my then fiancée, now husband, he’s from down here though. We met down here. So it wasn’t like a culture shock at all to him. and we just started talking like, what if we just didn’t go back? What if we just did this. He was like, done. Let’s do it. I’m ready.
But my big hesitation was the fact that I had spent the last 10 plus years working toward this career that I had built, and I had climbed the ladder and made it pretty far, but we just took the leap and I couldn’t have done it without him.
I wouldn’t have done it without him. When I forgot about all that noise and like, what will my art world colleagues think and blah, blah, blah. And I’m just like, okay, if I shut that out and just think about what’s really important, it’s my family. Right?
Helping this family business and giving it one last shot. Maybe, I’m the one to do that. Of course I did not believe in myself then, but I’m just like, okay, well let’s go. It was a very hard year. Very, very hard year. And I had many moments of self-doubt. Many, many, what felt like rock bottoms, can’t do it. Throwing in the towel. Probably, until the following February, and that’s when I finally was like, I can’t do it. It’s just lockdown after lockdown and building upon debt and just, it just seemed, it felt hopeless and it was kind of a serendipitous moment.
Shortly after that, right before we were about to send a letter out to shareholders saying that Alma’s been bankrolling this, there’s other investors here and we’re not going to do it anymore. It was literally we had the final draft written and, I’ll never forget, I was here in the back and I stepped outside into the parking lot to make one last call.
Okay, there’s this guy, maybe he’ll have an answer or an idea or anything, because he was a consultant we’d worked with and he was always such a big champion of ours. I called him and he said, I have an idea. And that was our second wind, if you will, or third or fourth or fifth.
From there, he made an introduction to whom would become our new partners and investors who not just brought capital to the table, but experience, decades of experience in the industry. And it all happened, I mean, it took a while to close, but the courtship began within a month after that phone call.
Susan: Now when you went into that meeting with them, had you become Oxbow yet, were you producing any liquid or this was all before that?
Olivia: Yes, so we never stopped producing liquid ever since 2016. So, it just would be produced, we’d have different iterations and different brand names, but we were always producing liquid.
Now were we selling it during the lockdown? That’s a different story. Once things started opening up again in 2021 and the distributor started paying attention to us, accounts started picking us up more and more because they were opening up and the tide turned. It’s kind of crazy looking back on it because it just went from, okay, we got to give up and, praying even, resorting to strategies I normally wouldn’t have before then to make it through, to things totally turning around and us having hope. The new partners are when the rebrand from Three Roll to Oxbow happen once, we closed on that deal.
Susan: When they came in, did you have to change a lot of the rum itself, or did you keep making the same rum, that first rum, when it relaunched as Oxbow?
Olivia: Well, I will say it. Revel, my husband and I, we refined the recipes when we got on board and learned everything. I mean, we literally were just learning on the fly. Had a great distiller Pryor who moved away, but he trained Revel very quickly. Then Revel went on to win best in class awards after like six months of distilling, ridiculous.
So we had refined the recipes or the processes rather, not so much the recipes and that, with distilling cuts and everything like that. Then when we switched from Three Roll to Oxbow, we dropped some of the portfolio, increased the proofs, but overall kept the recipe the same, like as in the type of yeast we use in the feedstock.
Always have used high grade molasses, and then cane juice for our Agricole style. It’s just a matter of learning more and refining the processes that greatly influence the final product.
Susan: What were you making at that time?
Olivia: Under Three Roll, we had like eight to 10 SKUs.
Susan: Oh, a lot.
Olivia: We had not just an Agricole style, but a Brazilian style, cachaca style. We had white rum, dark rum, red stick, a cinnamon liqueur style rum, and then some tasting room exclusives. So I knew even it was a little bit too much and all over the place, and I mean, even in the early, early days, they were making vodka and we were looking at a gin and. look, that works for some distilleries, making a little bit of everything but given what we come from and the cane farm, let’s just do rum and do it well and be the best at it. That’s the route, that’s the direction we’re going with Oxbow. We refined and paired down.
Susan: How long did it take from them coming on board, your partners, to you feeling, I think we got this. I think this is now going to work and we’re not going to have to close, but also this could potentially be successful?
Olivia: The first meeting when I first got introduced to him, it was that transformative, and I even just met one representative of them and just hearing about what they were looking for. Because it’s a very particular company. I mean, it’s brand new, but what they’re called Stockwell Reserve.
The president and co-founder worked for Buffalo Trace for 20 years and helped develop brands like, Weller and Wheatley and the big ones. He had partnered up with someone who was interested in the spirits’ world, obviously, and investing in these great craft distilleries, who don’t necessarily have the capital to succeed, but had great juice, great story, authentic people. Like that’s literally, those were the boxes.
Susan: Tick, tick, tick, tick,
Olivia: Check! And they felt the same way. I mean, the partnership, the ties felt very, very strong from that first meeting and that felt like, okay, we got a shot. Deals take a long time. It was a year and a half until the ink was dry, but it was a strong courtship if you will.
Susan: Okay, so Oxbow, you decide on the name Oxbow and you start producing under that name. And also, we have the False River, which we’ll talk about in a sec.
Susan: Were you doing all of these, you were doing your white, the small batch and the dark and the spiced at that time.
Olivia: Yes, under Three Roll, we weren’t using the language small batch and barrel-aged straight rum. During the strategic planning and branding, brand strategy planning, the partners and we both came to the consensus at the same time.
What we need is a bourbon style rum brand. You look around, bourbon is what’s selling. It’s number one in America, I mean there’s just no contest. Rather than try and fight that and go the typical route that you see of rum that is, like crossbones and skulls and treasure and pirates.
Let’s flip this on its head, the category on its head. We started thinking about it that way and hence, using rebranding, raising the proofs. That was a big one across the board. So we no longer even do an 80 proof product. Then using these descriptors like small batch, barrel-aged straight rum, and then of course, the bottle and the labeling and the branding just very elegant. No pirates!
Susan: No pirates and also representing Louisiana here with your Rhum Louisiane,
Olivia: Of course, Martinique are the original creators of Agricole. Right? They have an AOC on it that is recognized over on that side of the pond and in the Caribbean, however not in the US. We are able to put Agricole on the label and we had been doing that.
However, say, one day, that AOC does get recognized here regardless of that, what we’re making is not like a Martinique Agricole, Martinique Agricole is made from sugar cane grown on volcanic rocky soil in a climate that has constant salty sea breeze. You can taste that in an Agricole, there’s that salinity in minerality and it’s special in its own right.
But what we’re working is the cane juice rum from sugar cane that is grown in rich, super rich, super fertile, delta soil, some of the most fertile in the country, and of course in a humid climate. You taste that rich, buttery, filthy rounded smoothness. When you taste this, it’s totally different than a Martinique Agricole or a Hawaiian style or a cachaça or anywhere else in the world. It’s that you taste the terroir, so we want to call it something different.
Susan: Yes. And that terroir is in Louisiana, so why not call it where it’s from. So let’s talk about the others. The small batch, the white rum and the aged. The small batch? We’ll do it first. So it’s 90 proof or 45 ABV. When you were refining the processes for this, can you tell us what you decided to stay with and what got left behind to have your final product for this one, and then we’ll go on to the barrel-aged one.
Olivia: Yes. With the small batch white rum, I think what really makes it special is obviously our raw ingredients, as a single estate, but also the same yeast. We researched more about fermentation health. That is so crucial. It’s not just about the distilling by any means. Fermentation health is so crucial. So we worked really closely with our yeast vendors. Learned more about that. And then of course, with our distillation cuts and rectification and that process, just getting more tighter with the cuts, if you will.
Then post distillation, we learned at a conference about slow proofing and how when water mingles with alcohol, those molecules. If you do it too fast, actually, Revel and I learned this on our honeymoon in Martinique, visiting a rum distillery. They were amazing. We learned this at JM, if you do it too fast, the molecules despite each other there’s just too much separation and flavor.
And up until that point we were just flip, flip, water, alcohol, bring it to proof, boom, bottle. But now we do over the course of at least 30 days, if not more, bringing it from the distillation proof, the composite proof coming off the still, which is about like 160, 170, and then gradually bringing it down to 90.
Susan: Super interesting.
Olivia: Yes, it’s really interesting when you do side by sides of the same product, one slow proof and one not. Night and day, night and day, especially with the Rhum Louisiane, the cane juice rum, because that is so delicate. And another thing, going back to Rhum Louisiane and what we changed from before, that goes all the way to the height we’re cutting the cane and how we’re treating the cane.
Yes. And that honestly, how we’re prepping the cane before crushing or, lack of prep, like washing, etc. That is was the biggest difference in the change for Rhum Louisiane. Because we were keeping that soil and, to a degree, still getting that terroir. Yes, when we empty the fermenters, you’ve got like a layer of mud at the bottom.
Susan: Oh, no way. That’s so cool. I don’t think I’ve, I’ve never had anyone talk about either process on the show.
Olivia: Yes. And I didn’t know any of this before 2020.
Susan: So let’s get to the barrel aged, I’m assuming, which is so bad to do, that it starts off as the this and then it goes into a barrel.
Olivia: We use a different yeast, but yes, essentially same process except on those distillation cuts we run really deep into the tails at the end, and that’s the real funky flavors you’re going to get. For instance, with vodka, you’re not going to keep any of those, but for like a mezcal or something, you want the funk.
So we run deeper into the tails to get more funk because that stands up to the barrel better. We will also gradually proof down, we’ll go into the barrel at like 130 proof. And then, we first use new charred American oak barrels and you don’t see that very often in rum aging.
You see a lot of like ex- bourbon, ex- cherry, ex-sherry ex-port. So people think I’m crazy, but I think our unaged, unfiltered white rum is delicious out of the still. So why would I want it to taste like something else after aging?
Susan: Now, was this also the idea of thinking like a bourbon as you were saying?
Olivia: Exactly. Great point. If you notice on the label, barrel age is very large, and then we have the descriptor, straight rum. There’s no official definition or federally recognized category of straight rum. They toyed with it back in the thirties actually.
So we were in an effort to be more like bourbon, which was also more popular in the thirties. We pulled from that playbook. That’s what we’re doing here. So we’re following straight bourbon rules. First use charred American Oak for a minimum of two years.
Susan: Last but not least, we have now False River Spiced Rum. So tell me about False River and how that’s different or like Oxbow.
Olivia: Sure. So Oxbow’s identity is all about transparency. No additives, no sweetener, no coloring, which is very commonplace in rum. I think that has set rum back in a lot of ways. So with False River, that’s our spiced rum brand, spiced rum inherently has sweetener, additives, flavoring, etc.
That is what defines spiced rum. So we made it a different brand name under the same umbrella of Oxbow Rum Distillery, of course. So, what we’re doing there is we take our small batch white rum. We infuse with bay leaf, or as y’all would say, I think laurel, and whole vanilla bean for three days. And then we blend with our baking spiced and orange flavoring.
Then I scale back on the sweetness by like half compared to our former brand, Three Rolls Spiced Rum. What you get is a spiced rum that I would drink because they were always too sweet and syrupy for me. And then something much more balanced. There’s a lot more going on. It’s not just one note.
You get the herbal from the bay leaf going on, but it’s not like, oh, that’s bay leaf. It’s just kind of, Ooh, what is that? And then obviously the vanilla is very strong. And then on the back, you get your orange, your baking spice, clove, even like a hint of cinnamon. So lot going on. It’s fun.
Susan: It is delicious. Yes, it is so delicious. So you are now, knock on wood, doing very well. How long did it take till you knew that this was going to be fabulous. Do you feel like you’ve gotten to the point where you are set with these and you want to start doing something else and adding a few more SKUs?
Olivia: Yes. So again, kind of a nod to the bourbon world with limited additions and seasonal releases and I’m definitely willing to play with different barrel types as like a thing. Definitely keep an eye out for that. We’ll be launching soon with a couple more SKUs.
Susan: And also your distillery, you can come visit . How long did that to set up?
Olivia: There were tours being done before I came on board, but not to the level that my team and I worked out now. I knew I wanted something more interactive. So if you come here to the tasting room and distillery downtown, Baton Rouge, we have a little tabletop Three Roll cane crushing mill. During harvest season, when our cane out front gets tall enough, our little patch of cane, we’ll cut it and run it through the mill and then you can taste fresh pressed cane juice.
Then we’ll take you through the back and follow the exact process and in the order that our ingredients come in. Fermentation and then we’ll go through distillation and then the barrel room where you can actually thief from a barrel and taste straight from the barrel. And then, finish it off back here in the tasting room, where we do a full tasting, of our lineup, our core SKUs and our beautiful Glencairn Oxbow glasses, tasting glasses, which are also for sale.
Susan: Of course now. This is quite a personal question, but do you feel New York art world calling you back, or are you pretty entrenched and do you fall in love with the rum world?
Olivia: Have absolutely zero regrets and I can’t, I actually can’t even imagine who I would be or where, as a person, if I hadn’t had done this.
Susan: Yes, and I’m sure your father and your family must be so thrilled that you’ve come back into the fold and into the sugar and created this.
Olivia: They would’ve never thought in a million years that would happen, or probably I could have done this. So proved it to myself and them.
Susan: Absolutely. Now we always finish off with a top tip for the home bartender. It could be a rum tip or any other kind of tip, do you have something for someone who might be drinking one of your liquids?
Olivia: Don’t overthink it and feel like you have to use all these crazy ingredients. If you just think about how to balance a cocktail very simply, you can make almost anything. So whether it’s refreshing and shaken, you just need a perfect balance of fruit and sugar and the spirit, and you are good. Then with a stirred and boozy cocktail, just think bitters, a little bit of sweetener and your spirit. Ice, ice, cold.
Susan: All right. I love that. Absolutely. Last but not least, if you could be anywhere drinking anything, where would that be and what would it be?
Olivia: I’ve gotten this question before, and I always say drinking at home in the cane fields, the rum, Louisiana, where it was made and grown.
Susan: Well, that’s wonderful. I always feel that you really get someone’s personal love and I do love that question.
Olivia: Yes. Second would be on the beach on Martinique also drinking cane juice rum.
Susan: Okay. All right. No Pina Colada for you. Cane juice rum!
Susan: Thank you so much for spending the time with me. I really loved hearing about Oxbow. I wish I could come down to Louisiana and see it for myself right this minute.
Olivia: Maybe one day.
Susan: Yes, exactly my next trip to Louisiana. Absolutely. It was great to hear about your rums, so thank you.
Olivia: Thank you. I appreciate the time. So nice speaking with you.
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