November 9, 2020

Written by Katelyn Hudson. Photography courtesy of Cathead Distillery.

While the craft distilling scene in the South continues to grow each year, it can still come as a surprise to some that it accounts for nearly 30 percent of all US craft distilleries, including classic spirit states such as Texas, North Carolina, and Kentucky. While the region is known for ruling the brown liquor market, boasting some of the best domestic bourbons, American whiskeys, and ryes, Richard Patrick and Austin Evans, founders of Cathead Distillery in Jackson, Mississippi, chose a lighter, more versatile spirit on which to fill their glasses: vodka.

In 2010, longtime friends and spirits enthusiasts Patrick and Evans realized a shared, lifelong passion and dream by starting Cathead Distillery, Mississippi’s first legal distillery. The pair met as undergraduates at the University of Alabama in 2001, where they bonded over mutual interests including live music and great cocktails, as well as similar backgrounds of being raised by entrepreneurial families who owned small businesses.

“We always knew we wanted to cut our own path in the world,” said Patrick when reflecting on the decision to start the business. “We decided to go with what we knew and loved at the time, and that was the wine and spirits industry.”

The men spent their post-college years slinging drinks, working for other spirit brands and distributors, and developing a collective knowledge of on-premise and off-premise beverage operations so that when the right opportunity presented itself, they would be ready. “The stars aligned when we took a road trip for a blues music festival in my home state of Mississippi,” Evans said. “There were no distilleries in the state at the time, as we were the last state to repeal prohibition in 1966, and it just made sense.”

The name “Cathead,” a term first coined by Mississippi blues musicians as a nod to respected artists, pays homage to both the state’s rich musical heritage and the guys’ personal passion for live music. Today, the words “Support live music” can be found on bottles of Cathead Vodka, as a portion of proceeds from every bottle sold is donated to like-minded organizations, such as Music Maker Relief Foundation, Southern Foodways Alliance, and the New Orleans Blues Society. While each non-profit supports a different cause—be it supporting young artists, preserving Southern culture, or reviving forgotten music, recipes, and stories—each contributes to the goal of preserving and celebrating the pair’s beloved Southern music and heritage. Each summer, the brand also hosts an annual music festival of their own, known as Cathead Jam.

As pioneers of the distilling industry in Mississippi, Patrick and Evans became well-versed in the state’s legislation around alcohol production and distribution, even amending several antiquated laws before they were allowed to legally open their doors for business. Once operational, the decision to start making vodka was an easy one.

“I think selfishly that’s what we were drinking at the time—and it’s what we still drink,” said Evans when asked about the decision to make Cathead Vodka.

For Patrick, it had to be a lighter spirit: “It’s so hot in the South. We wanted something that’s versatile and you can drink all year long. Obviously, the South has a long-standing love and appreciation for bourbon, and we did too, but we just knew that was going to be later on down the road for us.”

After distilling the first vodka in Mississippi, Patrick and Evans went on to create the first honeysuckle- and pecan-flavored vodkas in the world.

“For us, it wasn’t just about being local; it was about nostalgia,” said Patrick when asked about the vision behind the two Southern-inspired brands. “Honeysuckle and pecan are flavors that are living all over the South. I grew up in Georgia, moved to Alabama for college, lived in South Carolina after that, and then moved to Mississippi. These are ingredients whose smell and taste were with me wherever I went.”

Meticulously sourcing ingredients from across the Southeast, Patrick and Evans aimed to create vodkas that not only convey a strong sense of place but also evoke a similar nostalgia in their fellow Southerners.

“It’s fun to substitute the flavored vodkas into a standard cocktail to add a bit of depth and complexity,” said Evans when asked about his favorite way to incorporate the unique flavor profiles into cocktails. “It’s surprising how versatile they actually become.”

For those looking to take advantage of Cathead Pecan Vodka for the holidays, Patrick says the sky is the limit. “I’ve had everything from Pecan White Russians to a Pecan Old Fashioned to more mainstream stuff like Pecan Moscow Mules.”

The world of “firsts” didn’t stop with honeysuckle and pecan vodka though. Cathead went on to create the first and only chicory liqueur made from 100 percent chicory root, an ingredient made famous by the home of voodoo: New Orleans, Louisiana. Bristow Gin, Bristow Gin Reserve, and Old Soul Bourbon bring the brand’s portfolio to seven craft distilled spirits.

“The flavors we’ve created over the years have come to us organically,” said Patrick of the slightly bitter, roasted flavored Hoodoo Chicory Liqueur. “We’ve never tried to chase trends, but our goal all along has been to remain authentic to who we are and where we’ve come from.”
Authenticity has served as a guiding principle for the brand since day one and is something Patrick and Evans reflect on as they celebrate a milestone this year: 10 years in business.

For Evans, the people they have surrounded themselves with have made all the difference. “It’s been incredibly rewarding to assemble a team that reciprocates the same love and passion for the industry that we have sought out since the beginning.”

“We’ve learned a lot,” said Patrick when asked about the business’s journey over the past decade. “Starting out as two 20-somethings in T-shirts and flip-flops to now having a team of more than 30 colleagues is really humbling. We’re always keeping our eyes on the road ahead.”

As for what’s next for this dynamic duo and the quickly growing brand, the distillery is currently commissioning two pot stills, which will be used to distill different bourbons and whiskeys. The stills, which are set to be complete by end of the year, foreshadow what fans can expect as far as new product offerings in the years to come.

“Austin and I have known each other for nearly 20 years, and we’re still figuring out who we want to be when we grow up,” Patrick said. “But what I do know is that, wherever we end up, it will be an exciting journey.”

Recipe


Southern Pecan Toddy
2 oz Cathead Pecan Vodka
1/2 oz Hoodoo Chicory Liqueur
1/2 oz Ceylon black tea syrup
1 dash of angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a coffee mug and add 3 oz hot water. Squeeze orange peel on top and discard. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.


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