This story is part of a partnership between Mississippi Today and The ‘Sip Magazine. This story also appears in the current print edition of The ‘Sip, a special culinary issue, available on racks and by subscription. For more stories like this or to learn more about The ‘Sip, visit thesipmag.com.
David Rich knows a thing or two about bourbon.
“I had my first taste when I was in college — after I turned 21, of course,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
He enjoyed the taste so much that he soon had an obsession of sorts, sampling bourbons and studying what brings quality.
The Madison native received a degree in mechanical engineering from Ole Miss and took a position with a defense contractor in Alabama, where he worked for several years. All the while, however, his appreciation of bourbon and other fine spirits grew, as did his desire for entrepreneurship. Rich knew he wanted to move back to the Madison area and he wanted a business of his own. Soul-searching complete, he decided to open a distillery in Canton.
“I really wanted an older building, and I found this one in Canton,” Rich said. “I learned that Canton used to be a hotbed for liquor in the state before Prohibition, so it seemed like a natural fit.”
The distillery is housed in a 6,600-square-foot 1880s brick building on West Peace Street. Rich had the downtown building meticulously restored. The front houses a large tasting room with tables and chairs and a copper-topped bar that stretches almost wall-to-wall on one side. A display of spirits produced at the distillery lines the shelves behind the bar. Although Mississippi law prohibits the distillery from serving cocktails or selling bottles — Rich is hopeful when he adds, “for now.”
Also on display are several antique ceramic jugs that are stamped with such names as Trolio and Hossley, a tribute to days when local liquor distributors purchased spirits out of state and rebottled them for sale in Canton.
“We can offer tastes to guests,” Rich said as he slid a small cup of spiced rum across the bar.
Rich today makes and sells the spiced rum along with a white rum and corn whiskey. But the flagship product at Rich Grain Distillery is bourbon.
“Bourbon takes a few years to age,” he explained. “We have some in the back that will be ready this fall.”
The tasting room has large plate glass windows that look into the distilling area. Inside are four open-top 300-gallon fermentation tanks.
“It takes 500 pounds of grain per batch,” Rich said. “That first cooks into a fermentable mash.”
Rich held up Mason jars filled with grain and sugar to illustrate the ingredients in the spirits he produces.
“This is turbanado sugar and molasses,” he said. “I get it from Louisiana. It’s used to make the rum.”
An assortment of spices is then added to give the rum its kick. Next is a jar of corn, which Rich buys just around the corner at the Madison County Co-op.
“The corn whiskey has only three ingredients — corn, water and yeast.”
But the product he’s most excited about is the bourbon.
“We make one with 66 percent corn and 17 percent malted barley and 17 percent rye or wheat. Using rye gives it a different taste from wheat,” he said. “We are making both.”
The bourbon is in the back area of the building, stored in white oak barrels that are charred inside.
“That’s what gives the bourbon its beautiful color,” he said.
Some of the bourbon is stored in 15-gallon barrels, which accelerates the aging a bit.
“That one ages only two years,” he said. “The bourbon we have in these 30-gallon barrels takes about three years.”
For now, Rich is a one-man show. He does all the work himself, from grinding the grains, making the mash and running the custom-made copper still to bottling and labeling the spirits. He also is his own sales department, working closely with the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission, as well as visiting package stores and bars to introduce his product to as many people in the state as possible. Luckily, Rich has a couple of furry friends to keep him company. He jokingly refers to his 10-year-old black Lab, Dixie, as his “head of barketing,” although her primary activities are lying on the couch and eating corn that falls on the floor.
“She’s really good at both,” Rich said with a laugh.
Kitty is a stray tabby cat that showed up at the distillery early on, looking for a job.
“Her primary job is keeping mice out of the grain,” he said.
Rich is also the chief (and only) tour guide, providing tours of the distillery upon request. The beautiful tasting room also serves as a popular event venue for engagement parties, wedding receptions and other functions.
For more information, visit www.richdistilling.com.
Photos by Melanie Thortis