BY ALEX MCDANIEL
Ole Miss alum David Rich launched Rich Grain Distilling Co. in Canton with a plan to eventually unveil the brand’s flagship spirit—the first bourbon ever produced in Mississippi, which debuts in November. We asked him a few questions about his favorite spirit and he delivered.
Q: What made you want to open a distillery?
A: I knew I was opening a distillery before I knew what the name was going to be. I had a yellow legal pad with a whole page of name ideas and word associations I was playing with. I was messing around on the internet and found a website called Pre-Pro.com. The website has lots of historical information on distilleries before prohibition, and it is searchable. I typed in my last name, and Rich Grain Distilling Co. was one of the results. Rich Grain Distilling Co. was based in Kansas City, MO and I have no relation to the original company. It is a standalone name on its own that says exactly what the company does, uses good quality grains to make spirits, but it also just so happens to have my last name as well. I went and looked at the patent and trademark office and got the name registered for myself. The company had been defunct for almost 100 years. My logo is the same logo used by the original company.
Q: Though you produce other spirits, you’ve said before you wanted bourbon to become the flagship of your brand. Why is that?
A: For one thing, it’s my personal favorite category of distilled spirits, so I make what I like to drink personally, but also as a category of spirits in the U.S., bourbon only trails vodka in sales revenue and volume. The bourbon “pie” is much bigger than the “pie” for other spirit types like gin, for example, so as a small producer there’s more room to grow in a larger sales volume category. Another reason is bourbon sales have skyrocketed over the last several years. The category has experienced tremendous growth, specifically in the sales of craft and premium brands. So not only are consumers buying more whiskey, but they’re buying higher end, more expensive whiskey.
Q: Top three bourbons you’ve ever tasted. Go.
A: I think a lot of times how good something tastes is highly dependent on the circumstances surrounding that tasting. Your mood, the event, the weather, the location and setting, and the people you’re with all play a role. It would be tough to directly compare without doing proper side by side comparisons and taking notes. For a big distillery brand, I’ll say Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 release, craft distilled bourbon Garrison Brothers, and my own.
Q: When is the Rich Grain bourbon debuting?
The first bourbon ever produced in Mississippi will be released for sale in November of this year, in time for Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays. All of my products are labeled under a family of products concept. Rich Grain Distilling Co. is the brand name on all the products, with only a color changing ribbon between product types. For example, the bourbon has a red ribbon on the bottom, spiced rum is orange, white rum is aqua.
Q: Do you remember the first time you drank bourbon or whiskey in general?
A: Hmm, this answer could get me in trouble with my folks if they read the article. I’ll suffice to say that it was in the Grove, and I was underage, and I’m still hooked.
Q: Does it make you cringe when people mix good bourbon with Coke?
A: I’d definitely prefer if people who bought my product didn’t do that, but if they pay for it, I can’t really tell them what to do with it. It would be their loss, though, to cover up the flavor. For that reason, at a party I’d have a lower price option on the counter for people who take it that way, and the good stuff behind in the cabinet for those who can tell the difference.
That’s most people’s progression in drinking whiskey. Start out by mixing with Coke, then slightly more whiskey and less Coke, then no Coke and only ice, then no ice and a little water, then neat. I prefer to drink bourbon neat out of a Glencairn glass. It’s a glass specifically designed for drinking spirits. The shape of it concentrates aromas to the nose, and the base where it is held keeps your hands from warming the spirit too much.
All that being said, there’s sometimes when I just want a cheap beer or a bourbon and Coke.
Q: You’re at a liquor store with $20 in your pocket. What are you buying?
A: Can I make it $30? If not, the best bourbon under $20 is Evan Williams Black Label. There was a time when you could find Eagle Rare in a 375-ml bottle, as well as a fifth, so I might get that.
Q: Rich Grain’s bourbon will be the first (legally) distilled in Mississippi. Why do you think it’s taken so long for someone to come along and try their hand at it?
Before prohibition, the landscape was a lot different than it was today. You had small distilleries and breweries all over the country, as well as some big companies. When prohibition came, the small guys went out of business, and the big guys were able to stay afloat by making medicinal and industrial alcohol. So after prohibition, you had only a few large corporations remaining. All the federal alcohol laws were rewritten with large influence by and for the large producers.
Mississippi is its own special case because we were the first state to ratify federal prohibition (we enacted it on our own in 1908, before it was a federal issue) and the last to repeal it in the 1960s. Canton, where my distillery is, had a lot of liquor dealers pre-prohibition, being a railroad town.
Alcohol possession and manufacture was illegal in Mississippi until the 1960s, and up until the last 10-15 years, the same few major distilleries were the only ones in operation. The craft distilling boom hadn’t happened, so there wasn’t really a market for any whiskey that was produced outside of Kentucky. Consumers didn’t really care so nobody was going to just up and build a distillery in in the state.
The other reason is bourbon production is EXPENSIVE. To do it on a large scale, you need a ton of capital. When you start out, you are spending a lot of money filling barrels and just sitting on inventory without much money coming back. The barrels themselves are one of the biggest costs.