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‘Legal’ homemade liquor

Forty-four years after prohibition ended in Mississippi, its first distillery is opened

Spirits consumers around the state can now enjoy a homegrown product.

That is, a legal homegrown product.

After all, Mississippi, which had banned alcohol in 1907, was the last state to repeal Prohibition.

The year? 1966.

But it’s a new day in the Magnolia State.

Cathead Distillery, Mississippi’s first-ever legal distillery, is now open for business. The company is poised to begin producing the first 2,500 cases of Cathead Vodka, which made its official tasting debut May 20 at Congress St. Bar & Grill in downtown Jackson.

The distillery is located in an indistinguishable 4,000-square-foot warehouse just off I-55 between Madison and Canton.

Operating under Bottletree Beverage Co., the brand’s holding company, 80-proof Cathead Vodka is the brainchild of Bottletree owners Austin Evans and Richard Patrick

Evans, 29, is a Jackson native who met Patrick while both were students at the University of Alabama.

“We were both small business management majors and have similar tastes and ideas,” said Evans.  “Starting a distillery in Mississippi is something we knew we were going to do.”

After earning their diplomas at Alabama, the pair reunited in Charleston, South Carolina, where Evans worked in the bar business.  Patrick, 27, was employed with a South Carolina liquor distributor.

In Charleston, they kept their college dream alive.

But the real groundwork to open Mississippi’s first and only distillery and produce an ultra-premium spirit for a premium price really started three years ago.  Evans said the project hasn’t been easy, what with mounds of Federal and state paperwork, but he’s been pleased with the spirit of cooperation from officials.

“For the past two years, we’ve worked closely with the state Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) people, and they’ve been great to work with,” he said.  “ABC has been very helpful through the whole process, something that’s never been done in this state before.”

The first cases of Cathead Vodka were carried out of warehouse recently.

The first cases of Cathead Vodka were carried out of warehouse recently.

The distilling industry is heavily regulated, with Federal and state approval required to operate a distillery and to use it to warehouse product.

Evans says the regulation book is thick and pays attention to even the smallest detail, including the verbiage on the brand’s packaging.

“There are six or seven licenses you must hold to be able to operate a distillery,” he said.   “You even have to have a solicitors license to call on liquor stores to sell the product.  Plus, you have to have several permits granted from the state and Federal government.”

Kathy Waterbury says Cathead became the first to pass the litmus test for operating a distillery in Mississippi.

“We’ve had others apply over the years but for various reasons, it never worked out,” said Waterbury, a spokeswoman for the state tax commission, which oversees alcohol regulation in Mississippi.   “Since Mississippi repealed prohibition in 1966, the right to operate a distillery under state regulations has always been a part of the law. (Cathead) met all the requirements to become the first.”

Like many other states south of the Mason-Dixon line, Mississippi has had its share of illegal spirits operations, many of which were devoted to the Southern cultural art of making moonshine whiskey.

Illegal moonshine stills in the state are still prevalent.  Lack of tax revenue from those illicit stills isn’t the problem, says Waterbury.

“The main issue is public safety,” she said.  “Moonshine is generally made under filthy conditions and can produce a product that’s deadly.  Our (agents) run across moonshine stills all the time.”

But with the introduction of the Bottletree/Cathead distillery, Mississippians can now enjoy legal liquor that is distilled, mixed and bottled in their home state.

Evans says that factored into his and Patrick’s decision to launch the Cathead brand.

“Our first focus will be in Mississippi, initially calling on liquor and package stores,” he said.  “But we’ve had a great response and reaction in the bars and restaurants that carry our vodka.  Everyone is real excited and been very supportive.”

Joe T’s Fine Wines & Spirits owner David Rushing says the introduction of a distillery is a positive for Mississippi.

“I think it’s an idea whose time has come and I know that (Evans and Patrick) are two young entrepreneurs who are fun to work with and will be successful,” he said.  “We got the Cathead vodka in last week and we’ve received a lot of calls about it.  I’m not really a vodka drinker but I’ve tried it and it’s good.”

A self-professed beer drinker, Debbie Rankin says she’s tasted the vodka and the product is sublime.  Rankin, who is the owner of Congress St. Bar and hosted the Cathead tasting party, added that the opening of the distillery is an important step in Mississippi’s socio-economic progress.

“I’m so pleased that Mississippi is stepping into the 21st century,” she said.  “This is another important event in the state and we’re happy to support anything local.  We’ve been selling (Cathead vodka), and we’re promoting it.”

Added Rankin, laughing:  “Who knows, we might have to re-train the Russians on how to make vodka.”

Oh, and about that brand name, Cathead.

Evans and Patrick not only chose the name, they designed the logo, selected the color of the glass and the shape of the Cathead Vodka bottle.

“We wanted something that was representative of the state’s heritage,” Evans said.  “Blues musicians back in the day were referred to as ‘cats.’

The name ‘Cathead’ represents the blues and our heritage — it just fit.”


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