Distillery raising Miss. spirits

By Jeff Ayres/The Clarion-Ledger

GLUCKSTADT — The roughly 4,000-square-foot warehouse is largely empty now, with a few boxes of T-shirts and memorabilia sitting on the floor.

Within weeks the building will be transformed with the hum of mixers and the clanking of vodka bottles being put into cases into Mississippi’s first distilled spirits production facility.

Bottletree Bottling Co. soon will produce an initial run of 2,500 cases of Cathead Vodka at the unassuming warehouse off I- 55.

The spirit could be on liquor store, restaurant and bar shelves by the end of the month.

The equipment needed to distill and mix the vodka hasn’t been installed, but Cathead has started marketing the brand, including using Twitter and creating a Facebook page.

Sample bottles of the 80-proof vodka sit in the office of business partners Austin Evans and Richard Patrick.

“It’s a project that’s been close to our hearts,” Evans says.

He and Patrick have been involved in the spirits industry for years, working for restaurants, bars and beverage importers before launching their own brand.

They wouldn’t say how much money they’ve put up to start the business but did say they have the financial support of a number of “silent partners.”

The two say they started the business to provide a locally made product that Mississippians will enjoy.

They’re entering an $18.7 billion industry which, even in a down economy, saw sales grow slightly last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade organization based in Washington, D.C.

Sales of spirits grew by 1.4 percent last year, although revenues remained flat, since many people opted to buy less expensive versions of vodka, bourbon, whiskey and other liquor, says David Ozgo, the council’s chief economist.

“We’ve seen a return in the last 10 years to a cocktail culture,” he said.

That’s because spirits are often cheaper to buy than wine and are versatile enough to be consumed as is or mixed with juice or other beverages, Ozgo said.

Mississippi is home to Kiln’s Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co., which makes homegrown beer, and Natchez’s Old South Winery, which produces wine from muscadine grapes.

But apart, no doubt, from illegal moonshining, the idea for a distilled-spirits facility seems to have gone unaddressed until Evans and Patrick settled on their venture.

“I wanted to see how things are made,” Patrick said.

The two say they can make inroads most effectively by stressing Cathead’s local roots – labels tout the drink as “the first legal distilled spirit of (Mississippi)” – to establish a core customer base.

“As someone who likes to shop locally and buy local products, it’s a wonderful thing,” says Butch Bailey, president of Raise Your Pints, a nonprofit group that promotes what it describes as modernizing Mississippi’s beer laws.

Craig Noone plans to open Parlor Market restaurant in downtown Jackson in July and says Cathead will be behind the bar when it does.

Having it brought in from just up I-55 is a much cheaper alternative to having a spirit trucked or flown in from another part of the country, he said.

“I want to use as much local product as possible,” Noone says. “I want to use Lazy Magnolia Beer, Cathead Vodka.”

For the initial run, at least, the grains and other ingredients needed to make the vodka will be brought in from outside the state, as will bottles and labels, Evans said.

Four to five people will be tasked with helping distill and package the product at the new business.

The vodka will be six-times-distilled, which Evans says is a few more times than average, and charcoal-filtered to make sure it’s as purified as possible.

As production nears, Evans and Patrick have been working 17-hour days hunkered over a modest hard-plastic desk at the warehouse.

It’s stocked with a constantly brewing coffee pot, a stash of Kleenex and what Patrick jokes is “an industrial-size bag of pistachios.”

It’s tough enough to put up the money and install the equipment to begin distilling vodka or brewing beer.

But it’s a heavily regulated undertaking, too, with federal and state approval required to operate a distillery and to use it to warehouse product, among other things.

Evans produces a thick notebook full of small print — with many passages highlighted in yellow — that spells out various state alcoholic-beverage regulations.

“There’s about another 10 to 12 sections just like that,” he said.

The regulations apply to the seemingly smallest of details, too. Cathead’s original label slogan of “Enjoy our refreshing beverage responsibly” had to be altered so “refreshing” was deleted, Patrick said.

But the protracted process of getting approval for a distillery will prove worth it should Cathead build a strong local following, says Nathan McHardy, co-owner of Briarwood Mart Wines and Spirits in Jackson.

Spirits tend to build more brand loyalty than wine, he said, noting less expensive wine is selling better than its more costly brethren these days, indicating customers may be switching wine brands.

“We’re 100 percent on board with them,” McHardy said of Cathead, which Briarwood Mart plans to stock.

The last five years have seen a proliferation of smaller “microdistillers” like the one producing Cathead, Ozgo said.

Many are run by folks like Evans and Patrick, he continued, people who want to produce a drink with a pronounced local or regional flair.

“Anytime you have growth in a market, there will be opportunities for niche (producers),” he said. “A lot of these guys are go-getters, very entrepreneurial.”