Photo Credit: Photo by: Emily Jaschke
Meet The Black Men Behind Texas' First Hemp-Based Vodka
Sometimes your calling comes to you in a dream, but for some it comes by accident.
Houston native Ben Williams always had an entrepreneurial spirit. The Howard University alum has co-owned several successful businesses in Houston, including popular restaurant Lucille’s.
In his downtime, he would hang out in his friend Wendell Robbin’s barn. The two men began playing around with vodka distilling, and the rest was history.
“We didn’t have plans to turn it into a business,” Ben Williams, co-founder of Highway Vodka told Travel Noire. “It was more of a hobby at the time. So much so, we did this for almost 8 years.”
As the men continued testing recipes from the barn, Ben would package up batches and allow his family, friends, and even some regular customers of Lucille’s to try it out.
“They always told us how great it was.”
After visiting a friend in California, Ben was introduced to the concept of infusing spirits with cannabis. While it’s not currently legal in Texas, he decided that he would find a similar alternative instead.
“I decided to try infusing hemp into our distilling process,” he said. “We began to see how the oil from the hemp seed allowed the flavor of the vodka to stay on the pallet longer as well as it made it smoother going down.”
To ensure they were on to something, once again Ben and Wendell allowed close friends and family to try out their new creations. The received rave reviews.
“It was literally the best stuff we had made.”
From there, the two continued taking the recipe to different events across the city. Once comfortable, they applied for their distilling permit. The process took about 2.5 years, but in the meantime they worked to build out their own distillery in Wendell’s barn. This was a lifesaver, because in order to be approved for the permit, you must show proof of a physical distilling location.
“We also began our search for a distributor while we waited for approval, Williams explained. “However, just when we were all set to get things running, the distributor backed out.”
While some would see this as a reason to stop, it was actually a blessing in disguise.
Ben called up a friend to vent about what happened. That friend in turn put him in contact with a person that would shift the entire momentum of the brand. He was introduced to one of the area’s biggest distributors who fell in love with the vodka and immediately decided to add it to their portfolio.
This simple intro led Williams and his business partner to connect with even more distributors that picked the product up in California, and most recently Florida and Georgia.
Highway Vodka officially hit shelves in mid 2019. You can order online via reservebar.com, or you can find it in Total Wines across Texas and California.
“I was also able to connect with Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, and she really showed me the ropes. I am so appreciative of everything she has shared with me about this industry. It inspired me to push harder, as well as be there for any up and coming Black distillers looking for guidance”
In addition to being Texas’s first hemp-based Vodka, the brand is also training Wendell’s daughter to become a distiller too, which is groundbreaking in itself since there aren’t many Black women distillers around.
The men recently purchased 7.5 acres of land behind the distillery and are planning to build a tasting room, which will be just 10-minutes from downtown Houston.
In keeping with the family’s giveback efforts through Lucille’s 1913, Highway Vodka donates a portion of sales to help feed Houston’s underserved communities.
“In the last 4-5 months, we have handed out over 200,000 meals across Houston. We not only feed the homeless, but our elderly neighbors as well. During the snowstorm, our family was able to gather and prepare meals, then team up with some of our community partners to help get the meals out during the storm.”
Now that’s what you call a “giving spirit.”
To learn more about Highway Vodka, or to purchase your bottles, visit the website: highwayvodka.com.