While there are few places more famous for moonshining, the state of Mississippi has had just one legal distillery operation in the past century. Cathead Vodka was co-founded by a pair of college buddies with a longtime dream, who just a few years ago, in 2010 to be exact, pooled their knowledge of the liquor industry, bought a still and put the state back on the map of craft distillers.
Austin Evans and Richard Patrick moved to Charleston, SC after college and dove into the business of booze: Evans in management and hospitality, Patrick in import and distribution.
"Late one evening we were at a blues festival on the Delta and realized we wanted to start a distillery in Jackson, where Austin is originally from," says Patrick. "We'd always wanted to start a business together and we were inspired."
Cathead's name is blues-influenced (as is anyone hailing from Mississippi), Evans explains. "Three to four generations back, old blues guys called each other cats. It was a term of respect, like 'that cat's cool.' In the 1930s and 40s, a musician named James 'Son' Thomas started sculpting cat heads out of river clay as folk art to support his music career, and his son Pat still does it. Our logo is a rendition of that art as a throwback to entertainment in the Delta."
That's not the only throwback Cathead boasts, however. Live music inspired the brand's creation, and the creation gives back.
"Every bottle of of Cathead says 'Support live music' on the label. We're huge supporters of blues heritage and arts in Mississippi and everywhere else. We work with non-profit foundations to support musicians in every market we ship to," says Patrick.
While the liquor industry has a strict set of rules and regulations for distilling, bottling and distributing, the Cathead guys (to their surprise) found few roadblocks preventing them from moving ahead with their project.
"It took a good while working with the state, there wasn't really language in the regulations to allow the distillery. Nothing said we couldn't, but we had no text to base any of it on. The officials were actually really cool and helped us work through it. They were honest and up-front and pleasant to deal with. Our approach was basic: get a road map, go out and do it. We'd come back to them after each step, ask what we needed to do next and go do it," says Patrick.
They met their master distiller, Phillip Ladner, in San Francisco, having traveled out to take classes with him. Ladner, originally from Mississippi himself, told the two spirit entrepreneurs he had an idea.
"We said we had one too," says Patrick. "It took a minute for everyone to trust each other enough to share, and it was the same idea! It had been his dream to start the first distillery in the state and when he found out we'd done it he consulted for us, then came on full-time."
In another craft distilling first, Cathead produces the only honeysuckle and pecan-infused vodkas on the market. They source the uniquely sweet, floral and aromatic blossoms and earthy nuts throughout the South, and Ladner developed Cathead's proprietary method for extracting their essence.
"There's not a lot of businesses that actually cultivate honeysuckle — we searched high and low," says Evans. "When we find someone who does, we basically buy all of their supply and are their only customer for the season. We only make a few thousand cases a year of the honeysuckle vodka, so it's really boutique and small-batch. Pecan took us a couple of years to figure out as well. It's just true pecan, we source them from one of the largest orchards in Mississippi and have them roasted and drum-dried to bring out the essential oils in the nut which have a lot of flavor and natural brown color."
So despite the South's profound love affair with whiskey, why vodka?
"With vodka we could put out a product we respected," says Patrick, "Mainly though, the choice was so we could justify all the expenses that go into running a distillery. Vodka can be made quickly and doesn't have an aging process. Our end dream is to put out whiskey and we're piecemealing that together one step at a time. We didn't have access to large amounts of capital to get great whiskey out from the get-go. We've slowly been able to extend the line, and do some other passion products. We make a chicory liqueur, which is also the only one on the market and we make an English Dry-style gin, both in limited releases.
And for a truly authentic Cathead vodka experience, listen to the guys' blues recommendations: Eric Lindell ("the Van Morrison of our time, great when you're out in the sun chilling"), Muddy Waters, James Brown, RL Burnside and Eddy Floyd. That's right: vodka and blues. It's a thing now. Pick up a bottle and show Mississippi how much you love both.
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