Cathead Distillery in Jackson, MS

Cathead Distillery spirited addition to downtown

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Sherry Lucas | 5 p.m. CST December 10, 2015 |

Lunar Module. The spot-on comparison, at least on looks, likened Cathead Distillery’s new and huge fermentation tanks to the Apollo spacecraft. Fair enough. The giddy goodwill at this week’s ribbon cutting anticipated a boon landing for downtown Jackson.

Space is certainly the big theme for the move of the distillery, makers of Cathead Vodka and more, to new digs in an old building on downtown’s edge, at 422 S. Farish St. The cavernous inside was anchored on one end by five

(Photo: Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger)

(Photo: Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger)

gleaming fermentation tanks, a mash tun and copper-columned still. The airy interior reached from a concrete floor to trusses high along the ceiling.

An no-walls beer bar was in the works in one corner; the sounds of saws and drills and a beeping forklift conveyed work still in progress. A tasting bar was positioned almost like a front door greeter. A barrel room in the back will house and age various styles of whiskey; the distillery’s first commercial lot of barrels was due for the move this week.

This is the final frontier — room to explore, experiment, expand and entertain for Mississippi’s first distillery in its move from a 7,000-square-foot space in Madison to 20,000 square feet of elbow room, a stone’s throw from the Jackson Convention Complex and the Mississippi Museum of Art, with a view that takes in the Standard Life Building and the King Edward Hotel. Its next-door neighbor is South Street Live Entertainment, a concert venue.

A grand opening, noon to 8 pm. Saturday, invites the public to the party, with all-day music, inside and out, from blues musicians from the Music Makers Relief Foundation (a Cathead-supported philanthropy), starting at 1 p.m.

Cathead Distillery will be open for tours and tastings starting Dec. 17-19, at 3 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays (tours on the hour).

Cathead bought all this gleaming equipment three years ago, and it’s been stored at this spot since, awaiting the growth that justified such a big move.

Dean and Ann Blackwell allowed them to store it in this long-vacant building that’d once distributed textbooks. “That’s where the reality of this place took shape,” said Cathead co-founder Richard Patrick, who, like fellow co-founder Austin Evans, lives in Jackson.

“You work so hard and time passes so fast, then you stop for a moment and you look up and it’s all kind of coming together like you had it in your mind,” Evans said. “It’s a pretty cool feeling.”

“The fact that it’s a homegrown business, that makes it so neat,” Greater Jackson Partnership President Duane O’Neill said of Jackson’s first distillery.

City and state leaders praised it as a key tourism addition for downtown Jackson that handily fits in with the city’s cultural and entertainment destination mix.

Like the distillery’s name, which carries connotations from blues to biscuits, there’s plenty of old in with the new, including chairs and tables repurposed after a Broad Street Bakery redo and old tin from out back now adding an atmospheric touch inside.

In addition to Cathead Vodka (original, honeysuckle and pecan), Cathead produces Bristow Gin, Bristow Reserve Gin and Hoodoo Chicory Liqueur. Co-founders anticipate production starting around the first of the year, but it could start sooner, Patrick said.

Cathead distiller Phillip Ladner looked over the lineup of five new 1,200-gallon fermentation tanks, the 600-gallon mash tun and 550-gallon still. “We’re basically going from a 40-gallon still to a 550-gallon still.” The move brings the opportunity for more, and different spirits.

There will be a bit of a learning curve with the increased production. “The good thing with distillation is, you always get another chance,” Ladner said. He chuckled at the analogy of a new playground for his talents. “Not only is it new equipment, it’s going to be a bigger playground for me.” Increased office space will also include a much larger lab, where they’ll be able to test and tweak spirits in-house, without sending them off for analysis.

The big still will be the “heartbeat” of the operation, allowing the expansion into a variety of products — “the first thing I would go to on the playground.” Cathead will continue all its current products, including the vodka that’s been its “heart and soul,” but a lot of the equipment will be used to make whiskey. Cathead has 60 barrels of whiskey aging now (targeted for the next one to two years), “but this will allow us to produce about a barrel a day once we’re at full steam,” Ladner said. They’ll focus on producing whiskeys, “everything from straight rye whiskey to bourbon, corn whiskey, basically everything except for single malts.”

The holidays provide time to do some trail runs, as well as getting tour guides ready and their public component launched.

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