When distilling his rice crop to make vodka was suggested to Mike Frugé, his wheels started turning. “I didn’t know anything about distilling,” he said. Frugé was a farmer, not a distiller. He’s a fourth-generation farmer on the same land his great uncle, John Meleck, planted his first rice on 20 acres in Branch, La. “I’d never made beer, never made anything. I just Googled it, and it turned out there was a convention on craft distilling in Baltimore. This was in 2017. I signed up for it immediately, and my wife and I flew out there,” Frugé said.
To be successful, his product would have to stand out from other liquors on the market. At the convention, Frugé discovered few people have even heard of a rice-based spirit, including craft liquor enthusiasts he met at the convention.
“It didn’t take me long to realize I had something unique,” he said. “There was an opportunity because, in the United States, rice is just not distilled, though more alcohol is made out of rice in Asia than any other grain by far.” Most vodka in the United States is made from grains — wheat, rye, barley, sorghum, corn, potatoes.
Frugé’s first batch convinced Mark (Mike’s brother) their vodka would be a hit. “It made the best martini I’ve ever had,” Frugé said. “It was just so creamy and smooth, you know. I sat there and I was having this drink at the bar with the distiller who helped me design the recipe. I called my wife and I told her, ‘This is unbelievable.’ That’s when I knew.”
After a year of learning and perfecting their craft, the Frugé brothers launched their farm-to-bottle rice vodka, naming it J.T. Meleck, after their great uncle, john Meleck. It first sold in local stores, then expanded to more than 300 stores, restaurants and bars across Louisiana.
Among other awards, the American Distillers Institute — the oldest and largest trade association for small-batch, independently-owned distillers in the world — awarded J.T. Meleck the 2020 Best of Class vodka. “We literally have the best vodka in America according to the American Distillers Association,” Frugé said.