The two-year-old company, which made history as Mississippi’s first legal distillery, debuts the world’s only honeysuckle vodka
By Tori Phelps Photography courtesy of Cathead Vodka
If you’re wondering where that name came from, you were probably born north of the Mason-Dixon Line. As any good Southerner knows, “cat head” is a time-honored reference to a blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. And for music lovers Richard Patrick and Austin Evans, no other name would do for their start-up vodka company.
Cathead Vodka is the brainchild of these business school buddies who shared an interest in the entrepreneurial life as well as the blues. Their stellar education, combined with a family background of small business ownership on both sides, seems like a surefire recipe for success. However, Patrick and Evans deliberately chose the path of most resistance by attempting to locate their fledgling company in Mississippi, a state that had never granted a legal distillery license. Ever. In its entire history.
Of the decision to intentionally sign on for years of timely compliance and interpretive law, Patrick simply says, “We noticed that Mississippi was one of the last states in the country that didn’t have a distillery, and being a part of history was attractive to us.”
Mississippi, the final holdout in the repeal of Prohibition, has a rich heritage of bootlegging. And its complex liquor laws make it nearly impossible to operate a distillery within its borders. “No one thought it could be done here,” Patrick says with a hint of well-deserved pride. The trick, as it turned out, was good old-fashioned persistence in the face of obstacles—like stacks of state regulations as thick as three phonebooks.
Paperwork aside, they also had to come up with $10,000 for a manufacturing license, a hefty sum for a start-up—much higher than the $500 to $2,000 fees imposed by other states. Yet another impediment calculated to discourage would-be distillery owners. But their patience and refusal to just go away already eventually earned Patrick and Evans the right to call Gluckstadt, Mississippi, home to Cathead Vodka.
In the five years it took them to break through, both continued to work other jobs—Patrick in the winery and distillery industry and Evans in the food and beverage industry. They also used the forced downtime to begin building an audience for a product they couldn’t even sell yet. “Lots of start-up distilleries are really well funded, but after they’ve invested a couple million dollars, they realize they don’t have any buyers,” Patrick says. “We did it backward, by building a supply chain and distribution network before investing in assets.”
This backward approach worked, and when their six-times distilled vodka came to market, it was an immediate hit. No doubt the craftsmanship had something to do with it, too. Patrick explains there’s no magic behind their distillation number other than it provides the very best flavor profile. “We remove a lot of the impurities that a lower distillation run wouldn’t,” he adds. “It’s a very clean, smooth-tasting vodka.”
With Cathead Vodka’s latest creation, honeysuckle vodka, the company earns another historical footnote, this time as the first to produce a honeysuckle variety. “We’re not trying to do the same flavor that every other company does,” Patrick says. “It’s more about what’s relevant to our heritage and upbringing—what grows indigenously in the South.”
And for the native Georgian and his Mississippi-born partner, honeysuckle’s iconic fragrance and flavor was the perfect choice. Coming up with the idea was a breeze, but it took two years of research and development before they crafted an all-natural honeysuckle product worthy of the Cathead name. “It’s not an easy flavor profile to achieve,” Patrick admits. “But we’re not going to put out products we’re not proud of.”
So what could possibly follow an innovation like honeysuckle vodka? Whiskey, of course. If that seems a bit random, you aren’t paying attention to what motivates the Cathead boys. “There’s a kind of romance to whiskey aging,” Patrick explains. “Plus, it seems like a Southern thing to do.”
Naturally, the duo wanted their whiskey to be the best, so Patrick and Evans attended training in California where they met a teacher so good, they stole him away. Industry veteran Phillip Ladner is now the organization’s master distiller, and Patrick says there’s no one better in the business. “It’s a craft and a true art, and I don’t know anyone who makes a better whiskey.”
Like all their products, it will support charities—like the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) and the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council—that are important to the cofounders.
When their whiskey comes to market in late summer, it will be with a label bearing the name Bottle Tree Beverage Company rather than Cathead, but it will still have plenty of “cat head” in it. Like all their products, it will support charities—like the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) and the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council—that are important to the cofounders. “Yoknapatawpha is an arts council for Oxford and Lafayette County, and they really embody the preservation of Mississippi’s heritage,” Patrick comments.
MMRF seems to be even closer to their hearts. “With Music Makers, we wanted to pay homage to our heroes in the blues community,” he says. “It assists older musicians with basics like health care and housing and even helps out when they can no longer do their own bookings.”
It makes for a good sound bite, but their commitment is clearly more than PR. Music is a way of life for Patrick and Evans. Even their Cathead Vodka labels are emblazoned with a directive to “support live music.” Sure, being the first legal distillery in Mississippi gives them a good story to tell the grandkids, but it was music that truly compelled them to put down roots in the state. “The fact that blues originated here—that it began along the Mississippi Delta—that was very big for us,” Patrick says almost reverently. “We wanted to incorporate that legacy into our practices as a company.”
So far, so groovy.
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