Cathead Distillery has been on our radar for many years. They sponsored one our very first Friends of the Café dinners with Vivian Howard in 2014, and we made a hand-sewn banner for them to use at special events. This spring, we’re partnering with them and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. for a special Cocktail Workshop on April 13th, as part of The Gathering—our annual community picnic.
We spoke with the team at Cathead to get an idea of why and how the company began, and the importance of Southern arts and humanities in their approach to doing business. Cheers.
The state of Mississippi was the last state in America to repeal prohibition, waiting until 1966 to make alcohol officially legal. Just over 100 years after alcohol was outlawed, longtime college friends Austin Evans and Richard Patrick founded Cathead Vodka in Jackson, Mississippi. While they are recognized for their passion for distilling, they are also known for their love of live music and Southern culture. When Evans and Patrick created Cathead Distillery, they did not just build a brand of liquor—they built a lifestyle brand.
The Cathead as a form of art supposedly originated with Blues musicians—specifically musician and folk artist James “Son” Thomas, who sculpted cat heads from clay.
AC: Can you explain the name of your company? How does it reflect what you do and who you are? What is a cathead?
CV: The term “Cathead” is a compliment in Mississippi, first coined back in the day by blues musicians as a nod to artists they respected. Mississippi artists and musicians went on to use “Catheads” in many forms of folk art, as a way to pay the rent and share their legacies.
Mississippi is the proud state where blues music began, a genre that has deeply influenced all forms of American music. We work hard to bring honor to the meaning of Cathead through our philanthropic support of live music and artisans alike. Cathead means friendship and respect.
AC: Craft cocktail culture has become the norm in many bars and restaurants across America. How important is that development to Cathead Vodka? And do you see or anticipate cocktail culture becoming too elaborate—more about performance or complexity and less about quality?
CV: The craft cocktail norm, as you say, has been very influential in building our brand. As mixologists, bar and restaurant owners take more pride in what they serve their guests—where it comes from, how it’s made, etc.
I think, or at least would like to think, that a quality-made cocktail will always win in the long haul vs. a trend someone made and thinks is cool but does nothing for the drink itself.
AC: Your product has extended beyond the classic vodka and into some flavored vodkas and other liquors. How do you select what products to develop next?
Our master distiller Philip Ladner is always coming up with new things, but hopefully, we’re done with flavored vodkas. We have two successful flavors in Honeysuckle and Pecan vodka, but we are actively working on aged juice that’s pretty exciting.
AC: Location is a huge part of who we are at Alabama Chanin. How do your location and your community play into your product and your business model?
CV: Being a southern brand is everything to us. We have no immediate plans to extend our footprint out of the South. More specifically, we are proud to be from Mississippi. There’s a certain stigma being from Mississippi, and we try and change that one pour at a time.
AC: You encourage consumers to “support live music” right on your bottle. Why is that? Is there a connection between music and your brand or your product?
CV: Blues music started in Mississippi—an important piece of our American DNA and simply the roots of modern day music that has influenced pop, jazz, rock & roll, hip-hop and basically everything. By all means possible, we align ourselves with foundations who support live music, genuine arts, and southern culture.
We donate $1 for every bottle of Cathead sold to a music arts or blues foundation in the states we currently have distribution. We partner with organizations like Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, Southern Foodways Alliance, Music Maker Relief Foundation, North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, Magic City Blues Society, and New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation.
AC: You founded the Cathead Jam, a music festival in Jackson, Mississippi. When and how did you come up with this idea? And how is it a reflection of your brand?
CV: Again, it goes back to our love of music and the support we try and give to live music. That, and we just want to throw a fun party and have a good time. We always knew we wanted to have different music-type events at our distillery and—moving into a bigger location two years ago—we were able to create the Cathead Jam.
AC: What is the most important thing (if any) that being based in the South or, even more specifically, in Jackson, Mississippi, brings to your products and to your way of doing business?
CV: We are proud of our Southern roots and strive to change the way people may view the South or, more specifically, Mississippi in a negative light. Southern culture and influence mean the world to us and we hope we are changing some views one libation at a time.