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Tom Donner: Neurosurgeon, Triathlete and Louisiana Distiller

Making booze isn’t brain surgery, he says, but it’s a lot of fun

l-r: Henry Peltier, MD, Jennifer Peltier, Beth Donner, Tom Donner, MD

In some ways, Tom Donner, MD is your typical Type A personality: on a typical weekday, he’s a neurosurgeon and part owner of an outpatient surgery clinic and come the weekend, he’s training for Ironman Triathlons.

But don’t think Donner, who grew up in the heart of Cajun country and lives there today on Easy Street (literally), doesn’t know how to kick back for a good time, or as they say in Louisiana, laissez-les bonnes temps roulez.


As of 3 years ago, he and his wife, Beth, also a triathlete, partnered with their long-time friends, pediatrician Henry Peltier, MD, and his wife Jennifer, a nurse who helped Peltier build his practice, and started Donner-Peltier Distillers, makers of the first legally produced whiskey in Louisiana since prohibition.

I Make Booze”

“When people ask me what I do in my free time, I get to say I make booze,” Donner said. “Making booze is fun.”

The only distillery in the world to produce vodka and gin from Louisiana rice — making it not just unique but also gluten free — the facility, located where both doctors were raised in Thibodeaux, La., also produces three kinds of rum, one praline flavored.

“I grew up in Thibodeaux surrounded by sugar cane and wondered why nobody made rum here,” Donner said. “Anywhere else you go in the world that has sugar cane growing everywhere has distilleries everywhere.”

Donner’s curiosity was born into a business after a triathlon in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. “We had made a family vacation out of it with the Peltiers, and we were sitting on a dock drinking rum drinks,” he said. “I held mine up and said, ‘Ever think of making this?'” Everyone laughed and thought it was crazy.”

Shortly thereafter the couples wrote up a business plan (Beth Peltier has an MBA), visited several small distilleries, and tried to learn as much as possible about the business as well as proactively troubleshooting anticipated problems.

“We went in with blinders on and when we opened our doors, we were pretty green,” Donner said. “We learned that the best way to make a million dollars in the distillery business is to start with two million. But to be fair, nobody’s getting rich running a small distillery.” Rather, he adds, it’s a labor of love he hopes will grow into a viable business to give to his children some day.

Hard-Wired Work Ethic

What his own father gave Henry Donner from a very early age was a strong work ethic. He and his siblings — all CPAs — were expected to earn their own spending money and if any of them came home with a report card that wasn’t comprised of all As, they heard about it. “From an early age we had it ingrained in us to work hard and achieve. There was no Plan B,” Donner said.

Exposed to hospitals by his med tech mom, Donner was interested in the medical field and inspired to become a surgeon by a couple of local surgeons who were family friends. When he mentioned his aspirations to his father, the elder Donner thought it was ludicrous.

“I was a bit of a ruffian as a kid,” Donner said. His father got Donner a job at the local hospital as an orderly where his tasks involved changing bedpans and thought that would be the end of that. But Donner liked the hospital environment and pursued his dream.

He studied zoology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and took his good grades to LSU Medical School. There he participated in an honors research program that involved operating on monkeys with the head of neurosurgery, who told him with his good grades he ought to go into neurosurgery. And he did.

After a residency at Charity Hospital in New Orleans where he got to “clip more than 100 aneurysms,” among other hands-on experiences, today Donner has a private practice where he operates every morning and sees patients in his clinic in Thibodeaux every afternoon, Mondays through Thursdays.

He operates on everything from brain tumors to ruptured discs, referring more complicated cases to university hospitals. He takes Fridays off unless he is on call for the weekend. “One of the things about working in a small private practice is you can’t take on everything.”

For Donner, growing up in Louisiana may indeed have helped a Type A neurosurgeon/triathlete to maintain a good life balance, which includes enjoying his own rum when he’s not on call.

“Where we live in the middle of Cajun country, partying and having a good time is more than just something to do on weekends. It’s part of the culture,” he said, adding, “Donner-Peltier definitely has been greeted with open arms.”

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