By JACK WEATHERLY
David Rich is taking handcrafted to a new level as he prepares to open his boutique distillery in Canton.
A mechanical engineer, he put in five years in the defense industry in Huntsville, Ala., as a designer on radar systems and unmanned aircraft projects.
But before that, while he was a student at the University of Mississippi, he “became obsessed with bourbon.”
That’s when he began his self-assigned research into the making of the whiskey, including what he calls the “magic and alchemy” of the process.
“I’ve read just about everything I could get my hands on,” he said, and bought every brand he could find.
Rich designed virtually all the still equipment for the refurbished 7,000-square-foot historic building, now Rich Grain Distilling Co., which he expects to start turning out liquor in late January.
Making the business model work will be the biggest challenge, says Rich, 29.
Fortune.com reported that there’s a boomlet in craft distilleries.
Ten years ago, there were roughly 50 in the United States. Today, says the American Craft Spirits Association, there are 769.
“Of those 769 distilleries, I would venture that only 50 make any money,” Tom Mooney, president of the association, is quoted by Fortune.com as saying.
Rich Grain will become the third legal distillery opened in Mississippi in the past five years. The state in 1908 anticipated federal Prohibition by 12 years by banning the making and consuming of alcohol and finally ratifying the 1933 repeal amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1966, the last state to do so.
The other liquor makers are five-year-old Cathead Distillery, which thus far makes only vodkas, but with its move underway from quarters in Madison to a plant three times bigger in Jackson, says it will also make whiskey.
Charboneau Distillery in Natchez started producing rum a year ago.
Co-owner Doug Charboneau confirmed Rich’s outlook about the task ahead.
“Making is easy, selling is hard,” Charboneau said in an interview.
Yet by the end of 2016, Charboneau plans to have four kinds of rum on the market.
He said his white rum – which will be followed by gold, aged and black versions – is in 50 to 60 Mississippi liquor stores, bars and restaurants.
A liquor store in Washington, D.C., sells Charboneau to out-of-state customers.
The distillery’s white rum was rated 92, or exceptional, this year by tasting.com.
After production starts, Rich will hit the road, talking with bars, liquor stores and restaurants – initially in the metro Jackson area, then farther out into the state, and ultimately into the region.
Once a certain amount of pre-orders is achieved, he will be listed with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division, which will make shipments from its warehouse in Gluckstadt.
His father, Neal Rich, owns Asset Engineering in Canton and real estate in the area, including the distillery building, of which he will be landlord for five years until his son buys it. The Mississippi Development Authority gave invaluable guidance in developing the business plan, David Rich said.
He has been approved for a state Historic Tax Credit, which provides for 25 percent reimbursement of construction costs.
The state ran out of money this year after the $60 million program was depleted and the Legislature did not appropriate more money.
House Speaker Philip Gunn has said he strongly supports seeing it get $100 million and there are signs of strong backing in the Senate. The Legislature convenes in January.
If it’s not funded, “we’ll be fine and can make it work, but it would make life a lot easier,” Rich said in an email.
He’ll get the cash flow started by producing white rum, spiced rum and corn whiskey, none of which requires aging.
The rum will be made with fancy molasses, Rich said, which exceeds the industry standard of blackstrap molasses. And the flavored rum will use all natural ingredients, unlike some mass-produced competitors, he said.
He and his father made a three-day, three-state blitz of distilleries – Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama – and, among other things, picked up about 50 bottles for his “library,” and found his rum gold standard at Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tenn.
But the ultimate goal is bourbon, the king of whiskeys in the South, and it has a bigger profit margin.
Production of that will begin in mid-2017, Rich said.
That aging timetable is achieved by using smaller oak barrels, whose insides are charred in a furnace, as in all production of bourbon, which provide “a higher ratio of surface area to volume” says Rich the engineer, and thus, as he likes to call it, faster maturation.
Translation: “there’s more charred wood in contact with the whiskey,” so the process is sped up without hurting quality.
But the small-barrel process is three times more expensive than using the larger, 53-gallon barrel that is the industry standard, which he plans to use after a few years.
Corn liquor, which is un-aged, will use nothing but Madison County corn (as will the bourbon), he said. Crystal clear, the whiskey has gone by other names – such as white lightning and moonshine.
It will taste “sweet and buttery” (it’d be good in a Bloody Mary, says Rich the marketer) but will have a kick, just like its country cousins – 90 proof, he said.
An 18-foot silo will be filled with corn from the Madison County Co-op, “which is right out my back door,” he says with a chuckle because of the convenience.
Livestock farmers will take the leftover mash off his hands at no cost. High in fat and protein, it “makes really good animal feed,” he said.
“It’s kind of a win-win. I get waste disposal, and they have free animal feed. And I get a little pork, get a little beef.”