Audio: Happy Raptor joins growing field of craft distilleries

Mark and Meagen Taliancich with the original Happy Raptor. (Photo: Happy Raptor Distilling LLC)

New Orleans abounds in spirits, but nowadays not all of them are of the ethereal kind. The craft alcohol scene here is booming. We have 20 local breweries and the distillery scene is taking off, too. New Orleans will have eight craft distilleries by the end of this year. Recently we sat down with Meagen Moreland-taliancich, co-founder and chief brand officer of Happy Raptor, a newcomer on the distillery scene. Happy Raptor is a thoughtful blend of entrepreneurship, neighborhood revitalization, and New Orleans-inspired rums.

Why the name, Happy Raptor?

My husband, Mark Taliancich, one of my co-founders and I, we have a 3-year-old. When we were naming the company, he was about 6 months old, and we thought he sounded like a happy velociraptor, like Jurassic Park, and it just seemed to fit. The funny thing is, now that I share that story with other parents, it seems to be pretty common. A lot of parents say, ‘my kid sounded like a pterodactyl.’ 

Tell me about the company. What sparked the idea?

The Happy Raptor team is made up of myself, my husband, Mark, and our great friend Peter [Rivera], who was our next door neighbor. It was a dream of mine and Mark’s since we got married in the Caribbean. It was our time spent in Martinique, and that region of the world, that really sparked the dream of opening a distillery. And then Peter was excited about it, too, and we were a perfect team, a perfect fit.

As far as the craft distilling scene in New Orleans, it’s really a fascinating and an exciting place to open this sort of a business, for a lot of reasons — one of them being that many people don’t realize that right here in New Orleans we have the second oldest distillery founded in The United States after prohibition, Old New Orleans Celebration Distillation that makes Old New Orleans Rum. The hoops they must have gone through over two decades ago to open their doors. A lot of those restrictions have recently been lifted, and so we’re seeing a little bit of a resurgence here. But based on our population, we are just getting into this really gorgeous new industry that creates a passion for local agriculture and that engages the community. Here in New Orleans, we’re drinking all year long; that’s the crazy part of it. Even in a recession, or a hurricane, people still want to celebrate, and they want to be having fun and creating memories with the people around them, and those are very social events, and so you need a really good rum to get you through that.

Is it a more hand-crafted artisan product that we’re talking about?

Absolutely. In the case of Happy Raptor, for example, our signature line of products that will be rolling out as soon as we open our doors, it’s called 504, we’re starting with hibiscus rum. It’s made in the tradition of rhum arrangé, as they call it in the Caribbean. We create a premium white rum that is 100 percent from local Louisiana sugar cane that we’re going to drive right down and pick up in our own truck, and bring it back. It really is kind of field to distillery. Then all of our products are made with real whole ingredients, whole spices, dried hibiscus petals that are all infused into the white rum. With the hibiscus, we have dehydrated lime that goes into that beautiful, aromatic mixture, and we’re going to be dehydrating every single lime on site. I like to say it’s not because we’re just that hipster, it’s that making sure that things are really done with that consciousness, and truly hand-crafted, every bit of that love that we put into the bottle impacts the taste, the fermentation, every step of the process. So yeah, when we talk about craft spirits, and I think this is true for us as well as our colleagues across the state, we’re really talking about companies that support their neighborhoods, that support their communities, and that also, perhaps most importantly, support Louisiana agriculture, too.

Happy Raptor Distilling will open in the new year in a renovated warehouse in Central City. (Photo: Happy Raptor Distilling LLC)

How did you learn to do it? 

Good question. My, it’s hard to learn to distill; across the US it’s different in every state. Mark, my husband, is our CEO and head distiller, and the distilling half is really his passion. When Mark and I met almost a decade ago now, he was a talented home brewer, which I think is where a lot of distillers kind of find that first spark. And he was making wine, and there was so much equipment at our house that our son shared a nursery with the brewery in our home.

One of the conveniences of learning about the tradition of the rhum arrange is that in Martinique, for example, you would buy any high quality white rum, and you would infuse it with a spice packet that you buy right there, and you just kind of drop it in, you let it sit there for a couple weeks, and you have something really exciting that comes after it. So we bought one of those spice packets when we got married, and brought it back, and Mark said, oh my God, this is fantastic. Probably a year later, we said let’s open a distillery. It took Mark over 2 years to recreate that spice blend, and perfect it, and sort of identify really beautiful white rums that we want to serve as similar to something that we want to create in our own space.

You have two flavors that you’re launching with, the hibiscus, and then also a bananas foster. Why those two?

The thing about the infused rums is it allows us to really have fun, and be creative, and come up with new ideas My husband likes to say that at Happy Raptor we’re not building a temple to rum, but we’re also inspired by our community, our culture, and the things that give us joy. So what are two of the things that bring us joy? Certainly the hibiscus rum, and the memories that it creates for us, and our family, and how well it fits into the flavors that we know in the city. And the bananas foster because it’s New Orleans. Also because it’s absolutely my husband’s favorite dessert, and it’s versatile in a different way, too. The hibiscus lends itself really well to cocktails, and you could drink any of this neat; it’s absolutely delicious. But the bananas foster does really well in a seasonal cocktail. You can also cook with it really nicely. When you throw it into a bread pudding recipe, it’s really special. So they serve different purposes, but they’re just as delicious. 

In your other lives, wearing your other hats, all three of you have day jobs, right?

I recently became the first full-time employee at the distillery, so I’m running day to day operations. I left a pretty big-time job at a very well respected PR firm in New Orleans, so it was a big jump My husband has his PhD in mental health counselor education, so he’s been a therapist, and a clinical director for many, many years. Then Peter has the coolest job of all of us:  Peter is a design engineer, and he works for Lockheed Martin, and he’s designing the Mars crew capsule for his day job.

So you have a rocket scientist.

That’s right.

This is about as grass roots an entrepreneurial project as you can get. Tell us a little bit about starting a company from scratch.

For startups in New Orleans, I think that the city is working hard on making resources available, but at the same time they are still kind of hard to come by. So we had a couple years of pretty heavy fundraising, investorship, which I think is not easy for new entrepreneurs. Then there’s just the basic struggles of juggling our day jobs, and when do we make that hard transition to full time. Now we’re in a maze that a lot of people know well, which is the construction timeline. It took us a long time to find our space, right behind Voodoo Barbecue on Saint Charles. We’re in Central City, and when we found our space it was restaurant storage for a local restaurant company, and it was just covered in graffiti, and definitely neglected, abandoned, they didn’t really need it anymore. As least aesthetically it was having a major impact on the neighborhood. So it’s important to us to be a part of that mindful revitalization. That in itself has come with all kinds of exciting challenges. And then there’s just the simple act of permitting for a new distillery, which is not an easy process.

Talk about your neighborhood. You want to be something a community resource and center in that area.

Yes, absolutely. It’s really important to us that the neighbors know that it’s not just another bar opening at the end of their block. As a craft alcohol manufacturer, I think that’s important to all of us in our field; we’re sort of a different breed. We’re not open all hours of the night, or anything like that. It’s just really focused on the production area, the product that we have for sale, and then we have an event space as well that we’ll be mindful about. We’ve definitely reached out to the neighbors. We’ve made a point of trying to make those connections, and we will continue to do that, and especially when we talk about issues of revitalization, and certainly gentrification in our neighborhood. Our little block of Central City, we’re so proud and excited to be there. We’re right between all that activity that’s happening on Oretha Castle Hayley, and  Saint Charles, and that neighborhood is fascinating.

After we open our doors, my first priority is launching the Happy Raptor initiative. We’re going to offer this space for free to nonprofits. You know, what I heard in my many years of working with nonprofits is they need money, PR, and space. I can give them space, and we’re happy to do that. The next priority is we want to launch an apprenticeship, going back to this question of how do you learn to distill. It’s a question of access, and it’s hard to find. To go to a distilling class costs a lot of money usually, and it can be hard to find an apprenticeship, or a place to learn. So we want to open our doors and start creating an avenue for people to learn about the distilling industry, because it opens doors across hospitality and food and beverage, and you can really grow from there. 

I know that there’s a Louisiana Distiller’s Guild. Have you found people have been pretty supportive of what you’re doing?

We are so lucky to have the Louisiana Distiller’s Guild. I have to tell you I feel that we’re all sort of us in it together. We’re all sort of hustling together, and we were very lucky. When our company was founded originally, 2 years ago, we just happened to be at the second meeting of the guild, and what we found there was a community of high collaboration. We have felt ready to pick up the phone, and ask questions of basically any colleague that we have.

Are you going to stick with the rhum arrange trend?

Right now we intend to really specialize in those infused rums. We actually will have white rum and dark rum available for purchase in the tasting room, only because we want to be able to make cocktails at the bar. We don’t intend to distribute those, at least not for awhile, if at all. But looking further into the future, we’re really excited about a product called Honey Fly Spirits, and that is, for lack of a better word, a brandy. I can’t really call it that because of federal labeling restrictions — you have to be made from a fruit to be called a brandy. But it’s a spirit made in the style of a brandy that incorporates local honey. A lot of people don’t realize that Louisiana is the 9th largest producer of honey in the United States, and it’ll be a premium product simply because it’s going to be a little challenging to source it. A lot of the honey is made in much smaller batches from a lot of different apiaries around the state. I have to sort of get in the muck, and go meet them, and I’m excited, but we’re going to mark every bottle so people can really track where that honey came from. Every bee farm, and what’s going on, what plants are growing in that area, it’s sort of like wine in a way.

What’s your timeline?

We have encountered what I think a lot of people in New Orleans are used to, which is construction delays. So we are at the mercy of that. We’re still on track to start production this fall, and I think that we are going to start booking private events, and limited tasting room hours, after the new year. We have about a 2,000-square foot facility, with a tasting room, production area, a 1,000-square foot back patio. It’s going to be lovely, especially this time of year when it’s not raining.

Is there any other signature dish in New Orleans that you would like to put into a bottle?

I’ll give you a little insider scoop. We are looking at a Ponchatoula strawberry coming up, maybe as the third edition in the series. I really love the chocolate-dipped strawberries when we go out for the festival, and the strawberry shortcake is my favorite. So if we could capture a little bit of that spirit, I think that would just be wonderful.

Are most of the rums sweet? I mean, I don’t see a red beans and rice rum coming down.

I’m so glad you asked that question. We never back-sweeten our products. In the bananas foster, we’re going to dehydrate every banana on site, so all that sweetness will come naturally from the fruit, and other flavors. Then if you like something a little sweeter, we’ll direct you to a really sweet cocktail. But for us, we want to make sure that we keep that flavor as authentic and pure as possible. But it’s homemade with molasses and Louisiana sugar, so it’s going to be pretty sweet.

How long does rum have to distill?

It varies. For the hibiscus, for example, it’ll take about 6 weeks for us to make a batch. About, 4 weeks to get it from start to finish, just with the premium white rum. Then it takes about 2 weeks or so to infuse it. It’s not an exact process; a lot of it is going to be our team in the back tasting it, and making sure that it tastes the way it needs to, and letting it sit longer if so.

Have you spent the past 2 years sipping rum in your kitchen?

Yes, I’ve become quite the snob, and I didn’t even realize it. My husband brought me two cocktails recently, one with a more common, very mass-produced rum, and one that was made locally — we’re really big fans of The Reroll out of Baton Rouge, we love their white rum. I took one sip of the mass-produced rum, and I said, oh no.

So we have to educate our palettes on this, and learn that rum can be very much an epicurean offering. 

Absolutely. Every rum is different. I see a lot of parallels with making a really nice wine, because there’s so much variation. There’s something in the process called making your cuts, and you have to cut off, I guess you could say, the bad alcohol, the really ethanol-y alcohol at the beginning, and at the end. And where you make those cuts alone changes the taste.

Not to mention, gosh, how the crops are that year, and what kind of mood you’re in when you make the rum, for goodness sake. It all matters.

Those interested in the new distillery, and finding more about the rums they make, the flavors they plan, and the hours when it opens can go to happyraptor.com.

 

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