New Orleans holds a special place in the world’s imagination, a half-Southern, half-Caribbean hideaway layered in cultural collisions, buoyed by cocktail artistry and swarming with innovators who live life to the fullest. Spicy food and liberating music add strength to its spell. Spanish moss and French architecture bolster the allure. And while there are other elements that fuel its roaring energy, high-end spirits are the real oil that keeps the gears of this celebratory machine going.
Two hometown brothers are now distilling spirits to make that machine run hotter, inspired by their love of New Orleans and years of soaking up its carefree drinking tradition.
Gus and Edward Haik grew up in Riverbend, an old corner of the Crescent City where the antebellum mansions of St. Charles Avenue give way to the timeless bungalows and southern cottages near the Mississippi River. As kids, the brothers would often venture over to the barn that housed the city’s streetcars, watching the iconic trolleys rumble in the early morning light.
“There was this great ozone smell they gave out,” Gus remembers. “We used to love that smell.”
Gus’ interest in chemicals and combustion only grew from there. After high school, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he earned a degree in control systems engineering. He was soon part of the navy’s ship-driving and surface warfare operations. One of the many skills Gus learned on these “floating plants” was how to distill seawater into something drinkable for his shipmates.
Meanwhile, Edward was studying English at the University of New Orleans. He was weighing life in the Big Easy against the insights of Tolstoy and Steinbeck and contemplating the city’s good-time creed through the prisms of Plato. Edward started teaching elementary school after he graduated, first in Uptown and then in the Seventh Ward. He loved the job, but a random coincidence in his brother’s life would soon change everything — and open the doorway to creating Cajun Spirits.
In 2007, Gus was working as a welder on the oil refineries spread across Louisiana when he answered an anonymous Craigslist post searching for a metal worker. Gus called the number. He was surprised to learn the message had been posted by James Michalopoulos, a world-famous artist and the owner of the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery. Michalopoulos was looking for welding advice as he transitioned from oil canvases to steel sculpturing.
Gus was soon spending time at the renowned painter’s distillery. It was a revelation. During his days at sea, Gus was always anxious to explore ports of call with locals wanting to show off their city. Often, beer, wine or spirits served as doorways to distant cultures. Now, the owner of the most historic rum-making operation in the United States was showing Gus the ways a distillery could be part of New Orleans’ mystique.
“It just never occurred to me that I could start my own distillery,” Gus admits. “I always thought of distillers as people who were born into generational families in the business.”
After working with Michalopoulos, Gus knew otherwise. In the summer of 2010, he licensed Cajun Spirits Distillery. Gus started dreaming up blueprints and design features for his operation, investing all his passion for engineering into the process. Gus wanted fermenters that would allow for all alcohol to be made in-house. He also needed a cooling system that could deal with the scorching New Orleans summers, one that gave him temperature control through every aspect of distilling. Gus started building his dream in a warehouse on the edge of the Third Ward.
Getting a label off the ground meant telling people how Cajun Spirits reflected life in New Orleans. Gus turned to Edward, whom he readily admits is the more charismatic of their duo. It took nearly five years, but the brothers got the distillery up and running.
“It was built in our free time and bootstrapped as hell,” Gus says. “But now, there is so much we can control in the flavors since we’re making everything from scratch.”
These days, it’s usually Edward explaining the fruits of that handcrafted ethos to visitors. He likes emphasizing that Cajun Spirits is built entirely on Louisiana agriculture products, particularly the sugarcane and molasses that go into its signature gin and vodka. A specialty rum is also in the works.
In 2017, Cajun Spirits’ Crescent City Vodka and its Third Ward Gin won silver and bronze medals, respectively, at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
“The flavor profile of our gin stands out to people who come here,” Edward explains. “I think it’s a very accessible gin. It really hits in the middle of your palate, where it can be delicious, but, as it comes on all at once, you can sort of pick it apart and say, ‘Oh, here’s the juniper, here’s the lavender and here’s everything in between.’”
For Gus and Edward, part of the odyssey around Cajun Spirits has been working with each other on a shared vision. The two are polar opposites. The Annapolis-trained engineer is a tinkering perfectionist. The philosophical literature fanatic prefers a more freewheeling approach.
“We butt heads,” Edward reflects. “We like the same stuff, but we have two very different ways of doing things. He wants to take every little variable and isolate it and try 18,000 different experiments. And I’m like, ‘No, it’s good enough, let’s just push on through.’”
Gus thinks that the volatile dynamic between him and Edward ultimately works out for the best.
“We have some passionate disagreements, the kind you normally wouldn’t have with an employee,” Gus acknowledges. “The good side of it is, this is someone you can trust. I know him. He knows me. We probably know each other better than we know ourselves.”
Chuckling, Gus adds, “But, when you work with someone who isn’t family, you wait a little longer before you reach for the baseball bats.”