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Photo (left): Erick Lewko, Director of Sales, Old New Orleans Rum with Louisiana music legend and Rock and Roll hall of famer Allen Toussaint.
Erick Lewko, Director of Sales for Old New Orleans RumExclusive interview with Mr. Erick Lewko, Director of Sales, Old New Orleans Rum. In the photo Mr. Lewko is posing with Louisiana music legend and Rock and Roll hall of famer Allen Toussaint.
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Exclusive Interview with Mr. Erick Lewko, Director of Sales for Old New Orleans Rum
I want to thank Mr. Erick Lewko, Director of Sales for Old New Orleans Rum located at 2815 Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, for his time for this interview to share with you the amazing story behind Old New Orleans Rum (ONOR): From inception, to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and their success through it all.
I wish Erick and his team much success.
Q: How did you get started in the rum industry?
I’ve been a fan of rum for many years and a fan of Old New Orleans Rum (ONOR ) since 2007. When I heard that James Michalopoulos, the owner of Old New Orleans Rum was looking for a new Sales Director, I threw my hat in the ring. I’ve held this sort of position with another company (non- liquor industry) for 10 years and have experience in sales, marketing, branding, and working within various distribution channels. Bringing that level of experience to a company with a great product has allowed us to expand and grow dramatically since my start in February of 2010.
Q: What products do you currently produce?
We produce four different rum products all at 80 proof:
• Crystal: an un-aged traditional rum made from Louisiana molasses.
• Amber: a small batch blend of oak barrel aged rums
• Cajun Spice: a spiced rum crafted from a 5 week infusion of natural spices and blended with an aged rum for an amazing flavor profile unlike any other spiced rum
• 10 Year: a very limited production product that was staged in oak barrels prior to Hurricane Katrina. This product is produced in batches blended from 3-10yr barrels of rum. Each bottle in the batch is stamped with the date of the bar rel aging end as well as the production number and the total production of that batch.
• We also produce a very unique “ready to drink” craft cocktail that we manufacture, blend, and bottle in-house: Gingeroo – a true craft cocktail made in 100 gallon batches. Gingeroo includes ginger pulp, Louisiana cane sugar, lime, Crystal rum, a proprietary spiced rum blend, and club soda. It comes packaged in a 750ml flip top bottle.
Q: Is there something unique about your distillery and/or your products?
We are a true craft distillery…not just a fancy label or a glorified blend house. Everything we do starts from raw materials. Our rum comes to us as a tanker truck full of local molasses from a sugar refinery an hour away in Thibodaux, LA. We start from there and complete the fermentation, distilling, filtering, infusions, barrel aging, blending, and bottling at our facility. Our operation began as a passion and a hobby and that concept is still in place. Much of our equipment was built by our distillers and their love of the craft shows in the day to day operation of our distillery.
Q: Do you have any plans for developing additional rums in the near future?
Of course, but at this point, I ’m not able to elaborate…however, our 10yr pre-Katrina product will run out by mid-2015. We will have a stellar replacement for that product, but as you’ll find out later in this article, there is a very good reason for why we are ending that product run in August of 2015.
Q: When you first began selling your rum 10+ years ago, you had a very interesting artwork label. I have not iced that you have changed the look of your labels on your bottles, what made you decide to change them? Is this due to marketing demands, eye appeal, etc…?
The owner of our company, James Michalopoulos, is a world renowned artist from Louisiana. He’s best known for his paintings focusing on a skewed view of some of the local architecture. James also has been selected to create and paint 6 of the highly collectible posters for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (1998, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009, & 2013). His Jazz Fest poster series is the most successful of all of the fest posters. In fact, some of the artists featured in the posters, like Louisiana music legend Allen Toussaint, attend our events.
As an artist, James continually sees a new vision as to the appearance of the product packaging…of course, as Director of Sales, my job is to make sure that the public keeps up with the changes! Our brand has been named “Cane”, “New Orleans Rum”, “N.O. Rum”, and now “Old New Orleans Rum”. The current label designs feature a clean, classic look front and back, but if you look inside the bottle, you’ll see a piece of Michalopoulos’ art on the inside back of the bottle. That label has been in place since 2006.
Q: What have been some of the greatest challenges/obstacles you have encountered thus far?
The single biggest challenge to our brand, the company, the city of New Orleans, and the entire state of Louisiana was the arrival of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. Our distillery was hit very hard and over 9ft of flood water filled our operation in the days after the storm. Our equipment survived as did the nearly 100 yr old brick and concrete building that houses our distillery. Our tasting room and much of our barrel aged product was not so lucky. Most of the barrels stored on our ground floor and in the first two levels of our bar rel racks were ruined….product that was staged as par t of a 10 year aging project star ted in 1997! Thankfully, our racks extend up several levels and our second floor mezzanine also stored barrels. We lost about 60% of our aging stock, however there was enough aging inventory for us to re-build and re-open the distiller y in 2006, nearly a year after the storm.
We re-introduced our brand after Katrina with a new look and a new name. In the days, weeks, and even months following the storm, the talk around the world about New Orleans focused on how the city was nearly wiped off the map, washed away, washed clean, etc, but one fact remained, the city survived and damaged areas were rebuilt. The personality and soul of the city remained as it has for hundreds of years and so the name of our rum was changed to pay homage to that history. “New Orleans Rum” became “Old New Orleans Rum”.
In 2007, we released the first bottle of the rum from the 10 year old barrels that survived the storm. Our 10 Year old premium rum, first barreled in 1997, was ready for launch. Obviously, the flood left us with much less than we originally staged, but this exclusive product, in numbered bottles, is released as the available barrels mature. From year to year, the quantity ranges from just over 500 bottles to as many as 1400 bottles depending on how many barrels from each year survived. Our last batch will release on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and it will definitely be a collectible product!
Q: Could you describe to our readers your everyday activities? In other words, how much time do you dedicate to product development , research, marketing, etc.?
My daily tasks vary greatly. Since our company is very small (less than 10 employees), I do much more than just manage sales. I’ve assisted in bottling, packaging, marketing, event hosting, driving the forklift to move inventory, conducting tours, and even built our new mobile rum bar – the Rum Runner. Typically though, my day consists of following up on sales calls, emails, store/bar visits, and negotiating programs and promotions with our distributors and their accounts. On days when I am in the office, I always check on the progress of production, survey the inventory, and make a pass through the tasting room for what I call a “quality control check”.
Q: Have you seen any changes in consumer palates over the years? Have you had to adjust your rum lineup to keep up wi th changing pat terns in the market , or has your target market remained unchanged over the years?
The market has changed throughout the country, but New Orleans is on its own pace compared to what I’ve seen in places like New York and Chicago. New Orleans is still a very Vodka heavy town with only a few venues focusing on more elaborate craft cocktails whereas NY and Chicago are gravitating towards the barrel aged spirits and craft cocktails using bourbons, whiskeys, and rums. Our target customer is a consumer that appreciates liquor with personality, but appreciates quality at an affordable price. We are a boutique brand that competes on price with the mass marketed products. Our time in the industry has allowed us to become more competitive than a typical start-up craft distillery.
Q: Have you seen a change in how consumers perceive rum since your involvement in the industry?
Yes, rum is part of a cocktail renaissance focusing on spirits full of flavor and personality. We are seeing more venues feature rum drinks beyond the traditional poolside cocktail and the surge in popularity of well crafted Tiki cocktails is a welcome change. Additionally, rum seems to have gained more respect recently in the world of the craft cocktail. At Old New Orleans Rum we have worked very hard to spread the word of our brand and the result has been an increase in sales of nearly 400% over the last 3 years. While much of that is a result of distribution improvements, the elevation of rum as a “go- to” spirit has also helped considerably.
Q: I interviewed Mr. Craig Adcock with Judes Rum Cake in last month’s issue and found out that you have been supplying him the rum for his rum cakes. This was fantastic news for me. Can you tell us your side of the story? What made you decide to work with Mr. Adcock? Are there any other companies you are doing something similar with?
Craig was in New Orleans and came by our distillery with some AMAZING rum cakes. What I found intriguing is that his cakes focused on rum as par t of the personality of the cakes…not just an ingredient. Working with Jude’s Rum Cakes was an easy decision and we even sell their cakes in our tasting room (mysteriously though, several seem to end up being “sampled” even on days when we don’t have visitors!). Our newest “non-drinking” application for our products is with a line of Pralines from a local company called “NOLA Foods”.
Q: Do you have any advice for anyone who is considering starting his/her own distillery in the USA ?
Yes, multiply your targeted expenses by 4, divide your short-term sales goals by 10. As bizarre as that may sound, it ’s not too far of f base. Realistic expectations are very important and the success rate of new distilleries is very low. Understand that flavor profiles are very subjective and the critics be very harsh and opinionated. Also, don’t expect to come out of the gate and blow right by Bacardi and Captain Morgan’s sales figures overnight. It ’s great to be positive about launching a new company, but for the sake of bottom line, profit, and longevity, you have to know your market, the price points that work, and who to align yourself with (retailers, bars, distributors, even other distilleries).
Q: Do you offer tours of your facility? If so, can you tell us a little bit more about it .
Our tours are very detailed and you get to see a working distillery. We are very low tech and I often describe what we do as a passionate hobby that became a business. Bob, our tour guide is a native New Orleanian and he has a way of putting a great local spin on the production of our liquor. On the tour, you’ll follow the path of the molasses from the storage tanks, fermentation, distilling, and bottling. The tour begins with a cocktail and ends with a tasting of all of our products. Part of Bob’s job also consists of driving our complimentary shuttle. The tour, when you take our shuttle, also showcases some info of the French Quarter and the area between there and the distillery. In fact, our reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor have been so wonderful that we have recently been ranked one of the top attractions in New Orleans!
Q: If people want to contact you or want to know how to get a hold of your rums, how may they reach you?
Our products are presently available in Louisiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, New York, Virginia, and on the Florida panhandle. The next US markets we are launching are Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Texas. By the end of October, Old New Orleans Rum will also be available throughout France!
To contact me or anyone else at the distillery, you can call or email. Contact info is on our website: www.oldneworleansrum.com.
Q: Is there a particular message or comment you would like to share with our readers?
I have a few messages:
• If you make a Rum and Coke with our rum, it ’s called a “NOLA COLA”.
• While we appreciate the support of customers everywhere, if your state, city, town, etc has a local craft distillery, support that distillery also! Craft distillers’ products offer unique interpretations of spirits and often are very price competitive with the mass marketed brands. The success of the craft brewery movement in recent years is a direct result of consumers embracing all of the nuances and variations of beers made in micro-breweries. Craft distilling is a rapidly growing segment and support of the local brands by customers in their home markets is critical to its success!
• On another note, everyone should familiarize themselves with the latest news on the “Rum Tax”. Do a google search for “Caribbean Rum Wars” and enlighten yourselves on the absurdity of what is going on with the Federal excise taxes collected on rum in the US.