New Business

A Shot in the Dark

by Elizabeth Rose

The team behind Rank Wildcat Spirits tossed a Hail Mary; now they're dancing in the endzone.

Photos by Robin May

The team behind Rank Wildcat Spirits tossed a Hail Mary; now they're dancing in the endzone.

For most imbibers, it's not unusual to dream up fantastic plans while drinking with friends on a patio in the middle of a summer night.

Most of those plans do not make it onto a piece of paper for further consideration, much less grow into a statewide business that leaves its creators scrambling to meet other imbibers' demands.

David Meaux, 35, and Cole LeBlanc, 26, both landmen, formed Rank Wildcat Spirits and its signature spirit, Sweet Crude Rum, just over a year and a half ago after a few drunken nights tossing around the idea, and Meaux's 2011 honeymoon trip to the Jameson distillery in Ireland, where he says he "caught the bug."

"I was in the distillery looking around this amazing place," says Meaux. "I immediately pulled out my phone, paid the roaming charges and sent an email back home to Cole that said, I'm standing in Jameson. We're doing this - when I get back, I don't care what it takes. If it doesn't work out, whatever, but we're going to start.' And he replied I'm in.'"

The idea to open the distillery stemmed from the two's mutual complaint that "you can't get a cask in your house that's full of liquor that you can just put a spigot on," says LeBlanc. He reminisces, "That was what I wanted and that was a problem that I couldn't get it. That's what started the initial drunken endeavor. The thing we're going to have to do one day is just make our own liquor."

Cole LeBlanc and David Meaux

Within six months, Rank Wildcat Spirits was an LLC and had its federal license to become the second distillery in the state, after Celebration Distillation, which makes Old New Orleans rum and has been distributing since 1999. The fact that there was only one rum distillery in the state was a determining factor in their decision to produce rum instead of LeBlanc's beloved scotch or any other more rigorously regulated liquor. They spend their Saturdays at the Bonin Road facility filling every bottle that makes its way to one of the more than 90 locations in Lafayette and the five surrounding parishes they've acquired since October.

"It's a hands-on process at every stage," says Meaux, "but what makes us happy is our product is competitive. We're making it just as good or better as the big guys with fancy toys."

The two, along with help from friends, crank out between 1,500 and 1,600 bottles of rum every Saturday, and each receives a handwritten bottle number and a dip in wax, sealed with the Rank Wildcat crest.

"Pride in perfection is one of the things that makes it so great - all the little subtle differences," says LeBlanc. "It's great what you can do with handmade products, and we know exactly what happens in every step of the process."

What results from their diligence is a "high quality, sippable, handmade product," they say, that they enjoy straight or in mojitos and fruit drinks. After breaking the wax seal and taking a whiff, the smell of banana is very apparent, but not in the taste. It's excellent with tonic and lime, which is the guys' favorite way to mix it, but they prefer to sip it neat. Find it in a mojito or caipirinha at Café Habana City or Blue Agave's rum punch. A number of businesses are finding ways to utilize it without drinking it, like in The Lab's cold sweet creams or The Gluten Free Lady's sweet crude rum glaze for her banana bread, which she sells at the Oil Center Farmer's Market.

The two like to call Rank Wildcat Spirits "the little distillery that could," priding themselves on their ability to create a successful distillery without help from loans or investors, especially considering their inexperience when it came to starting a business and how few distilleries there are in the state. LeBlanc built the still himself, and the two shovel the sugar cane themselves straight into a trailer from the sugar mills across Acadiana - but all that work is "a dream come true for us," says Meaux.

"A wildcat well, in a nutshell, is the drilling equivalent of a Hail Mary pass," says Meaux. He and LeBlanc were working on a leasing project that their boss deemed "rank wildcat," an archaic oil field term that was the equivalent of "a shot in the dark," says Meaux. "It became an inside joke between us, and when it came time to pick a name, Cole picked it from the vault. We wanted to be kind of oilfield-themed because of what we did, and it was right out of our history. It fits."

But the two are dancing in the endzone, and Rank Wildcat will only grow from here. They acquired a 53-gallon, 12-year bourbon barrel they filled with the rum, and Meaux says they will be aging it for the rest of the year to have its small batch dark rum, named Black Gold, on shelves in time for Christmas. Schilling, their distributor, is working to expand Rank Wildcat's distribution area statewide and Sweet Crude Rum will be on shelves outside Acadiana within the next few weeks.

Says Meaux, "We're just a couple guys who had an interest and got something done. We had an idea and we saw it through."