By LISA MONTI
Matt Crittenden’s goal is to start making craft whiskey next year on the family farm in the Kiln community. When the liquor starts to flow, it will be the first legal whiskey produced in an area once known as a moonshine capital.
Crittenden, who has a law degree, has had a lifelong fascination with local bootlegging and the lore that still surrounds it. He was about 8 years old when he and his physician father, Dr. James Crittenden, came across the remnants of a still in the piney woods.
“Growing up in Bay St. Louis and the Kiln, you always heard these romantic stories about moonshine whiskey,” he said. “Whiskey is such a part of the history of Hancock County.”
While he was a student at Ole Miss law school, Crittenden began researching the legal way to make whiskey, specifically small batches of craft whiskey.
He and his father attended an American Distilling Institute conference in Louisville, Ky., which offered sessions on the basics of whiskey-making, federal compliance, marketing, labeling and bottling plus tours of local distilleries.
Crittenden eventually joined a trade association to dig deeper into the whiskey process and saw the potential but put plans on hold to finish his studies. After graduation he practiced law briefly in Gulfport before deciding that whiskey making was more to his liking.
The family had moved from Bay St. Louis to an 80-acre farm in the Kiln and Crittenden area and decided to start working toward opening the distillery in a building about a mile down the road
“Moonshine still interests me, but high end bourbon and good rye is what I’m going after,” he said.
Getting a permit from the county planning and zoning office took a few months but the process was helped by the fact that Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co., founded by Leslie and Mark Henderson, has been operating in the Kiln for 10 years. It is the first packaging brewery in Mississippi since Prohibition.
The commission voted to allowed Crittenden to operate under the rules created for Lazy Magnolia.
“We are excited to have another home-grown cottage manufacturing business in Hancock County,” said Mark Henderson. “Mississippi is starting to embrace local products, the jobs they bring to Mississippi and the inherent synergies that allow farmers, production workers, retailers and consumers to all be stronger when we work together. Local production is good for Mississippi.”
After receiving the county’s approval, Crittenden put his name on the long waiting list to order the bourbon making equipment from Vendome Copper and Brass Works of Louisville, Ky., which counts major distillers among its customers.
“We ordered a smaller version of what the big guys use,” he said. The equipment is scheduled to be delivered in May.
“The problem we have been struggling to overcome now is finding new charred oak barrels,” he said. A growing demand for bourbon worldwide has created a barrel shortage. “The big guys and craft distillers all want the barrels, too,” he said.
The batches will be approximately 1,000 gallons of wash, known as distiller’s beer or mash, which will yield 150 to 200 gallons of white whiskey that is 140 to 160 proof or 70 or 80 percent alcohol by volume.
“All whiskey is ‘white’ or clear when it comes off the still,” Crittenden said. “Barrel aging gives whiskey the distinctive brown carmel color we are familiar with. The wood sugars extracted from the barrels also give us the vanilla and carmel flavors.”
Since plans to build Crittenden’s Distillery became public, county residents have been sharing tales about the old moonshining days with him. “Just about anybody you talk to out in the county who is over 50 at one time or another was involved in some shape or fashion making moonshine,” he said. “I talked to one old moonshiner and he said his dad put onions on the hot still to camouflage the smell.”
Crittenden said he will stay mindful of the Kiln’s rich whiskey-making history as he builds his new venture.
“I definitely want to do a good job and make Hancock County proud and always want to make a good product to make people want to come back a second time for it,” he said.