Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cocktails With Ale: Meet Cathead Vodka Co-Founder Richard Patrick

Welcome to my new series fusing beer with distilleries throughout the world!

Welcome to Ale's house!

Besides craft beer continuing to grow at a record-setting pace throughout the U.S., so are the craft distilleries making delicious spirits such as the vodka from Mississippi’s first legal still, Cathead Distillery. Besides their award-winning products including the Original vodka and the more adventurous Honeysuckle, Pecan, and Pumpkin Spice, they are revered for their support of their home state’s live music, culinary scene, folk art, and especially blues legends who made the South so historic. 
To spread the love past Mississippi’s borders, Cathead also sponsors art events in Atlanta such as Eric Nine and Shawn Knight’s Unadulterated exhibit in East Atlanta here, so their combined efforts score big with me; so much so, that I want to make them the first spirit maker in my new series, Cocktails With Ale.
To set things off, this will be a two-part series where I interview the co-founder of Cathead, Richard Patrick, and follow up by creating a craft beer cocktail using Cathead’s Honeysuckle with a partner of one of my favorite beer bars in Atlanta, Argosy.
This should be fun!
Here is Richard discussing how he started Cathead with his friend and biz partner Austin Evans in 2010, their love for music, what separates their vodka from others, what is b.s. in the industry, and the fad of making beer cocktails. Read on!

Thanks for kicking it with me, Richard. Let’s get right to it. How did Cathead get started in Mississippi and please break down the name?
Austin Evans and Richard chillin'.
Richard Patrick: Austin and I are good friends and have always enjoyed live music, drinking and blues festivals. The more you study music, you’ll realize the impact blues music has had on the world and it very humble roots along the Mississippi Delta. Austin is originally from Mississippi and I followed the music, culture and fascination of a great southern state that didn't have a distillery.
Blues music started in Mississippi and one particular festival in Clarksdale—the Sunflower Festival—is pretty pure and real. A while back now—one late night in the Mississippi Delta after a few juke joints we were posted up on the outskirts of Clarksdale—we were a few whiskeys deep but it was there where we decided to start a distillery with brands that would make an impact on the preservation and heritage of the blues culture. From a folk artist's point of view, ‘Cat’ means a reference of respect when associating their appreciation towards one another. It was a simple term Delta artists used which many musicians in all different genres of music use now, such as ‘That’s a cool cat,’ or ‘That cat can play.’ Son Thomas was the first musician that we know of who made the term art and painted and sculpted literally cat heads out of clay.

I am digging that! So what made you choose vodka and what separates Cathead from the others?
Vodka has never been the end goal for us, but has certainly been an excellent platform to build and grow our distillery. We respect vodka. We certainly acknowledge that it’s not the ‘cool’ category of spirits in your neighborhood craft cocktail bar because most craft cocktail bars are very gin, whiskey, liqueur and bitters focused. We chose vodka because there are no aging requirements and that helps a small distillery like ourselves because we don’t have deep pockets.
Cathead, I suppose, is separated from the pack due to our regional locality, great ingredients, our sales team who builds relationships, and certainly our distiller Phillip Ladner. Phillip has a skill set unmatched by our competitors both large and small, and is constantly improving our products. Our vodka is truly made in small batches unlike some brands that boast ‘small batch’ but deplete over a million cases. Our process inevitably will have to grow and expand, but I don’t believe we’ll ever lose sight of who we are. I may be thinking alone here, but you’d have to be crazy to name your product Cathead and expect to sell over a million cases a year.

Now that’s keepin’ it real!
Yes! One day, I would like Cathead to be more understood, but that takes time, or at least the approach we are taking. A close industry friend put it best when he said that he certainly respects our own humility, beliefs and place while interpreting a region.

What is the difference between premium vodka, being triple-distilled, etc., or are these all just gimmicks to sell product?
Marketing. Gimmicks. You can have a great product being triple distilled, twice distilled, twenty times distilled; ours is six times distilled. I don’t feel that a statement of how many times a product is distilled reflects the quality of the product. I feel these terms are more for people who don’t know or don’t care to learn what it means. It’s more like a false quality statement. There’s more to vodka than just how many times it’s distilled.

Is there anything else that irks you in the industry?
What I dislike more in this spirits category are ratings. Generally, these are false quality statements that are marketed hard. As far as big agency, brand owners and managers are concerned with you pay to play, you know, like pay for good ratings and reviews. It all boils down to marketing spending, not whether a product is truly worthy of a 90-point review or higher. In the last five years or so, there have been so many new rating companies too, all trying to make a buck. You can’t blame them or can you? I suppose pay to play for ratings is not new or just limited to just vodka or spirits, but to all consumer markets. Marketing.

I am learning a sh*tload here, Rich. Discuss your flavors and what you have coming out next.
We are not trying to bastardize the market with flavors. We use real natural ingredients. Our Honeysuckle has been a crowd pleaser and is true to Cathead. Pecan has been my favorite to work on; this, like all our products, takes time. Pecan has been a learning curve to the everyday home bartender, but for those who are more cocktail savvy, we've seen some pretty wild creations. I simply like my Pecan on the rocks.

What about coming out with other flavors?
Our objective at Cathead is to be unique. If we choose to put a flavor out, it's never to just put something out. Timing is pretty key when bringing products to market. We’ve certainly lost out on market share in the past, but we always want to make sure we are putting out our best work.   
You see, a lot of large agency brands bang out artificial flavors that are over-perfumed and undrinkable like flavors of the day. The problem with these large flavor portfolio brands is that they muscle this stuff out into the market with no intention of a reorder or the product ever making it to the consumer. You see a lot of retailers get stuck with shelves of bad products they cannot sell because it’s part of a sales deal or incentive. Flavor extensions are simply approached to beef up their balance sheets with no care of the negative impact that will have to their brand’s reputation over time.
We hope that we are building Cathead the right way by not trying to make a quick buck.  I’m happy with the way things are going and we have great people who work for us and fantastic distribution partners. For example, Savannah Distributing is a family owned distributorship in Georgia who are proven brand builders. They have taken the time to build and align their portfolio with quality brands. The folks at Savannah truly believe in the products they sell, our philosophies are alike, and at the end of the day, these are the kind of fellas you also enjoy and look forward to having a drink with.

That’s a nice Savannah shout out. Okay, let’s talk brew. Have you considered beer-infused cocktails?
Most beers are magical concoctions in their own right. I feel beer cocktails have their place. I proceed with caution in this category of beer cocktails because I don’t like fads and trends; for the sake of argument, they will probably become forgotten again.

I hear you and trust me, I am a beer purist, but every once in a while, I will come across a cocktail that will make me admit they mixologist knows how to pimp out a beer’s flavors.
True. In fact, I think shandies are fun. Most people who have never had a beer cocktail before are surprised when I tell them there’s beer in their drink. In my opinion, a good beer cocktail recipe to is our Lazy Cat recipe on the website. It’s a batch cocktail for spring and summer parties. It’s just a good all-around beer cocktail to knock back.  

Well I might have to add to that Cathead cocktail list when I get my homey Armando Celetano from the Argosy to mess around and create one with local brewery Three Taverns in Part 2 of ‘Cocktails with Ale.’ What do you think of that?
Bring it!

Argosy's Armando Celetano is about to hook it up!
To find out more about Cathead and all of the cool things they do, check out their website at Stay tuned for Part 2 where we make an actual beer-infused cocktail with Cathead's Honeysuckle Vodka!


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