Not long before Regina and Doug Charboneau’s two sons, now in their twenties, were born, the couple made a trip to Guadeloupe and Martinique, where they fell in love with rum. They amassed a healthy collection of bottles and brands and talked idly of one day opening a distillery, but Doug was consumed with his business turning struggling companies around, and Regina was equally busy. A chef and cookbook author, she’d created two wildly successful San Francisco hot spots, Regina’s at the Regis and Biscuits and Blues, a still-thriving nightclub serving up Southern cooking. In 2001, when they moved back to Regina’s native Natchez, Mississippi, to raise the boys, the rum idea remained on the back burner. Regina served as culinary director of the American Queen riverboat for more than a decade, and then the couple bought Twin Oaks, a circa-1832 bed-and-breakfast where Regina whips up her famous biscuits.
Finally, in 2013, Doug and eldest son Jean-Luc decided to take the plunge, and Charboneau became the second—legal, that is—distillery in the state, which was the last to repeal Prohibition, in 1966. (The first, founded in 2010, was the Jackson-based Cathead, which makes vodka and gin.) Among the initial steps was to find a location downtown. When they discovered a circa-1900 former grocery store and bar, it seemed perfect—except that it came as a package along with Natchez’s oldest building, Kings Tavern. “I wasn’t planning to be part of the mix,” Regina says, laughing. “But I am possessed by the curse of vision.” The eminently charming 230-year-old building, built of sun-dried bricks and bargeboards from scrapped river flatboats, already had a restaurant kitchen from a previous incarnation (along with a raft of stories about the ghosts who inhabit the place). “All I did was walk into the building, and the wood-fired oven that was on its way to my house was rerouted.”
While Regina composed a menu featuring wood-fired flatbreads and potpies (including a divine pork-belly version) topped with her signature bacon-thyme biscuit crust, Doug and Jean-Luc went to work on the formula for the rum, made with raw sugar, molasses, and Natchez’s much awarded municipal drinking water, which the Charboneaus purify through reverse osmosis. Though sugarcane was once
a viable crop in Mississippi, particularly in the areas around Natchez, less than a hundred acres are grown in the entire state today. Fortunately, a close friend’s family produces sugar at a mill near Jeanerette, Louisiana, just under two hundred miles away, so the rum is still a relatively “local” product. Meanwhile, Doug and Jean-Luc are already in search of land on which they can grow their own cane to make rhum agricole.
They produced their first bottle of white rum in 2014, while the golden rum, aged in bourbon barrels, followed in 2016. Both have already won gold medals from the Beverage Testing Institute. The white, which was the only American rum to make it into the top eight rankings, gets high marks from critics who praise its subtle banana and vanilla flavors and caramel finish. Both rums are bottled, corked, and sealed by hand in the distillery, which was pretty much taken down to the studs after it was purchased, leaving exposed beams, brick walls, and hardwood floors. A 150-gallon copper still now stands as the gleaming centerpiece of the space.
The rum is sold in the shop on the second floor of Kings Tavern next door (and online at cellar.com), along with cookbooks and Regina’s homemade jams and chutneys (including, naturally, Rum Punch Jelly). The fact that three businesses would operate at the same address meant that the Charboneaus had to request “strip mall” status from the city. “We’re definitely the most interesting strip mall in Mississippi,” Jean-Luc says, laughing, and he is not wrong. Tours and tastings are available at the distillery, and cocktails featuring the rum are mixed at the restaurant by the Natchez-born Ricky Woolfolk, who learned his craft in Miami before returning home.
Regina’s current favorites are the old-fashioned and the Spring Fling (pictured at top), made with blueberry syrup and lemon, but she also uses the rum in the kitchen. A mainstay of the dessert menu is bread pudding topped with crème brûlée and bananas Foster, flamed with an ample amount of the Charboneau white. Now she’s looking forward to experimenting with Jean-Luc’s latest creation, still in the fledgling stage. “He’s been infusing the rum with fresh-roasted coffee beans and plans to make a black coffee rum,” she says. “I can’t wait.”