Time flies when you’re having fun, or so the old saying and brain science tell us. Two long-time friends enjoyed making their own vodka for years prior to launching one of the fastest-growing Black-owned distilleries in America. Almost a decade after their homemade hooch experiments began, the Houston distillers are on the verge of a national rollout of Highway Vodka.
“The cool thing about it for both of us is it totally started as a hobby,” says Ben Williams, CEO of The Highway Distillery. “We were just hanging out, reading every book about distilling, watching YouTube videos and running different batches at our houses. We would have little battles to see whose was better.”
Williams and his partner, Wendell Robbins III, started selling Highway Vodka to the public in February 2019. The company’s sales have increased 500% year-over-year since the hemp-based vodka hit the market. “We knew we had something special, and we wanted to share it with the world,” exclaims COO Robbins. “There’s no other vodka on the market that I’ve tasted that is as smooth as Highway.”
Born in a Barn
What the Houston entrepreneurs accomplished over nine years of trials, tribulations and tastings would be noteworthy to most distillers. The fact that they converted a horse barn Robbins owns to conduct their experiments is even more remarkable.
“We installed the still where I formerly parked my tractor. We built walls and pressure washed after we demolished the horse stalls. We’ve got a bottling line where I had my haystacks,” Robbins says.
Finding new homes for the horses gave the partners a place to distill their craft hemp vodka. Before approving a distillery, state licensing inspectors must see where alcohol will be made. It took Highway’s founders three years to meet all the requirements of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
Next came perfecting the Highway formula through trial and error. Williams came up with the idea of using hemp seeds to make vodka after visiting a friend’s marijuana dispensary in California.
He and Robbins combined the hemp with local corn and water from an artesian aquifer in different ratios. The two friends joked about their process being a higher way of distilling. “In our process, we built our own filtration system,” states the company’s CEO.
Williams goes on to explain how the Highway Vodka name speaks the truth about the brand’s quality and purity. “A lot of things we created on our own. We were very particular about what parts of the spirit we collected, the cuts and stuff. On our bottles, you’ll see where it says all hearts, no tails.”
The hemp vodka distillers’ relatives and friends joined in the taste-testing after the batches crafted in the former horse barn started to impress its makers. “We finally got something when they would taste it, and their faces didn’t curl up,” Williams chuckles. “We were able to create our formula based off of those reactions. We adjusted it over the years to meet the palate of someone sampling vodka neat and at room temperature.”
Later, patrons at Lucille’s began to sample Highway Vodka. It proved to be a hit with bartenders and customers at the critically-acclaimed Houston restaurant Williams started with his brother, Chris, the executive chef.
“That helped us hone it in and make sure we were not burning people’s faces off by it being too strong or fiery,” adds the distillery’s co-founder.
Robbins gets a kick out of describing how competitive Williams is now at any venue where they can pit their hemp vodka against some well-known brands. “You do not want to catch Ben at one of those events and try to claim your vodka is better because you’re about to get it. By the end of the day, those guys want to buy Highway.”
Winning over skeptics gave the distillers confidence. Williams is ready to go toe-to-toe in blind taste tests with anybody anywhere in the world. “We just really believe in the product itself. The spirit is just so good. If we like it this much, you’ve got to believe that there are a few other people who will like it too,” he says. The Howard University graduate works full-time for The Highway Distillery after spending several years helping his brother with Lucille’s and 1913, the nonprofit they created.
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In the next few months, Robbins will start devoting most of his time to their business. He currently handles the responsibilities of being CEO of his family’s W.A. Robbins Construction Co. “Now, we’re in demand to the point that we will have nationwide distribution by the end of this year, and worldwide by the end of next year,” Robbins says.
Taking Highway Nationwide
Nationwide distribution of Highway Vodka will arrive when they complete expansion of their facility. The new equipment will increase production from about 1,000 cases daily to 10,000. That realization prompts a humorous exchange between The Highway Distillery’s founders.
“We started off originally making hooch or moonshine. Those first few batches were something you could clean oil off a driveway,” Robbins laughs. “But we drank it!” Williams adds. “And we were proud too!” his partner replies.
The two businessmen have attracted distribution partners for the national rollout of Highway Vodka. Robbins and Williams are still the sole owners of the hemp vodka distillery launched on a penny-pinching budget. They did get support from the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, a program using expertise and resources to promote diversity in the spirits industry.
Williams confides that the founder of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey usually doesn’t drink vodka. But Fawn Weaver tasted Highway Vodka and liked it. “To see your dream or idea gain life is an amazing thing. It feels really good. That’s the thing that keeps you going because after you cross one hurdle, you wonder what else we can do.”
Robbins’ daughter plays a crucial role in helping Highway Vodka become a national brand. Codi Fuller is the lead distiller and general manager. “I think she brings a fresh perspective and an internet presence.” He describes how Fuller got involved in his hobby while studying for her business administration degree at Texas Southern University.
“When we were still practicing, Ben and I would take our mashes home and cook them on the stove in big 10-gallon crawfish pots. I would have to call Codi and ask her to stir what was on the stove.”
The years of cooking, tasting and refining the hemp-based vodka began impressing judges at international spirits competitions in 2019. Highway Vodka has won gold, silver and bronze medals in New York, Denver and Las Vegas. It is sold at hundreds of liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Texas and Georgia. Most customers can order from the company’s website unless they live in liquor control states or counties (The Complete Guide to Liquor Control States Laws (zipbartender.com).
High Standards & Hemp
From the start, The Highway Distillery’s owners noticed unique benefits they associate with using hemp seeds in the vodka-making process. Their best-ever batch came out of a decision to skip one of the steps. “We used to do a process called racking. We’d only siphon out the liquid in between the grain and the oil that formed during fermentation,” says Williams. “One day, just being lazy, we dumped all the oil, liquid and grain into the still and ran it. That was the best thing we had ever made to that point.”
The distillers perfected the recipe by adjusting the amounts of hemp seeds, corn and artesian aquifer water. Along the way, they discovered hemp produced higher yields of the final product. “You research and find out that hemp and the amino acids in the hemp seed act as a nutrient for yeast. So our yeast was living longer and converting more sugars into alcohol, thus a larger yield,” says Williams.
Independent testing uncovered another side benefit of using hemp to make vodka. Highway has fewer calories, just 57 per serving compared to 64 calories for 1.5 ounces of most vodka brands sold in the U.S.
Highway Vodka gets distilled six times. The practice of bottling only the purest runs of the hemp-based spirit produces an exceptional smoothness, softness on the palate and a unique flavor. “It has a little bit more body and legs than your typical vodka. It will hold some of that flavor from the grain and sweetness from the corn on your palate, giving it more nuance and a buildable profile,” says Highway’s CEO.
Williams reveals one more advantage of incorporating hemp into the process from start to finish. It’s the likelihood of avoiding hangovers and headaches from drinking Highway Vodka. “If you just keep it pure and drink the hearts. They call them the hearts for a reason. It is where the love is. If you stay in that space, you’ll be better in the morning.”
Robbins, who has a Ph.D. in economics, emphasizes a point about the legal use of hemp seeds from the cannabis plant. Highway Vodka does not contain marijuana. He gets questions about that every day. “People still associate hemp with marijuana. Then they see the leaf on the bottle and get all confused. So, we have to explain that it does not have THC in it.”
Leaning into Lessons
Houston’s first Black-owned hemp-based vodka distillery would not exist today without the two African American distillers leaning into their mistakes. They created a standout, balanced spirit by mashing, fermenting, distilling and filtering until they got it right. “I’d like for other minority-owned distillers that have a great idea for creating a niche in the marketplace to look at us as a model of what to do,” says Robbins.
A burst of laughter follows as Williams responds. “I don’t know about that, bro.” The partners then recall how an open valve on a new still caused havoc in the horse barn. “As we are pouring five-gallon buckets of cooking oil in the top, five-gallon buckets of cooking oil are coming out at our feet,” admits Robbins. “I’m on a ladder, and he’s on a chair handing it to me, so no one is looking down.” Cleaning up that mess took a lot of cat litter and squeegees.
The two men acknowledge that breaking into the primarily white spirits industry meant dealing with the unexpected in other ways. It often required patience and deference to win over licensing officials, distributors and merchants. “Either you have money or relationships. So trying to build those relationships requires a very humble, thankful attitude for every step forward you are able to make,” says Williams.
Making the most of the knowledge the two friends acquired on their journey got them past roadblocks, over hurdles and through delays. Now they can focus on building a company that their children could inherit someday. Robbins is proud of Highway Vodka and the legacy it could provide for his daughters Codi and Marley and his son Wendell IV.
The same holds true for Williams, who has two daughters, Skylar and Karlyn. “I hope my kids, as they get old enough, will take an interest and want to be a part of it. That will dictate what kind of business this becomes in the next 20 years,” he notes.
As fathers and husbands, the successful entrepreneurs envision growing The Highway Distillery into a company respected worldwide. The partners plan to build a tasting room on the 7.5 acres where the converted horse barn is located near downtown Houston.
They also hope to produce other spirits in the future. “It’s really like your kids. You just want them to be all they can be. You want to be able to support and provide them with whatever tools they need to maximize their potential,” Williams says. “It’s the same thing with starting a business. It’s always just an idea first. You nurture it, work with it, love it and cry about it.”
Williams concludes that the most incredible thrill is seeing Highway Vodka test its wings and fly. Looking back on what he and Robbins have accomplished with their hemp-based spirit is incredibly rewarding. “Outside of money, I think that excites us the most. It’s seeing this little baby grow. Seeing the purpose and passion turning into something is really cool and the greatest part.”
Stay up-to-date on The Highway Distillery’s nationwide rollout by following on Instagram and Facebook. Go to the company’s website for information on purchasing Highway Vodka products and merchandise.