Eight years ago, Ben Williams was just a vodka fan with a penchant for tinkering. Equipped with a 13-gallon still and a head full of knowledge acquired via books and YouTube videos on distillation, Williams took to his garage with grain, sugar, and yeast to make a vodka better than any he’d ever tried before.
That is, of course, until the police showed up. Distilling spirits at home still isn’t legal in Texas — some might call it moonshining — and Williams says that the officer who saw the still in his garage politely told him to pack it up and stop making booze in the neighborhood. Not wanting to put an end to his pursuit of the best vodka in the world, Williams moved his operation to a friend’s barn, and in its most rudimentary form, Highway Vodka was born.
Williams got the idea for a hemp-based spirit after visiting a marijuana dispensary owned by a friend in California, where recreational cannabis consumption is legal, in 2016. While there, he met some distillers who were experimenting with different uses for cannabis in spirits, and was intrigued by the prospect. “I started ordering any parts of the plant that I could find, just playing around and making tons of batches,” Williams says. “I ended up settling on the easiest thing I could get, which was hemp seeds. You can walk into any Whole Foods and get that.” After mixing the hemp seeds with corn and yeast, Williams realized he’d stumbled onto a winning formula.
To his surprise, hemp was a particularly good stock for making vodka. The clear spirit can be distilled out of pretty much anything starchy, including potatoes and grains like rye and sorghum. There seems to be some science behind hemp’s ability to produce a superior vodka. Williams noticed that the hemp-based vodka was producing higher yields (read: more booze) in each batch, which can be attributed to the amino acids in the hemp acting as a nutrient for the yeasts that produce the alcohol. “Upon further research, I figured out that the yeast was living longer and converting more of the sugar to alcohol,” he says. When more of that sugar is metabolized, it pushes down the calorie count of the spirit, which makes it appealing for the many drinkers in search of a low-calorie libation.
Later, Williams discovered that leaving the thick layer of hemp oil that formed on top of each batch helped protect the mash, while producing a smoother mouthfeel in the finished product. “It looks kind of nasty, like olive oil sitting on top of oatmeal. But one day I got lazy, because this was just my personal batch, and dumped the whole batch in the still,” says Williams. “And that changed everything. It was the best stuff that I had ever ran.”
He started performing blind taste tests on friends and fellow spirits enthusiasts, and won over almost all of them. Leveraging his connections in the restaurant industry — Williams’s brother Chris is the chef-owner of Lucille’s and a prominent fixture in the city’s dining scene — he started sharing the vodka with bartenders, who offered valuable feedback.
Now, after trying a slew of different grain bills to produce hemp-based vodka and jumping through countless regulatory hoops, Highway Vodka has the capacity to produce nearly 30,000 gallons of the clear spirit each year. It’s still located in that same South Houston horse barn, owned by Williams’s business partner Wendell Robbins III, and plans are in the works to expand the space with a new tasting room. As the distillery continues to grow, Williams’s enthusiasm for its top priority — taking hemp-based vodka mainstream — is palpable.
After seeing the grassroots popularity of Highway Vodka, Williams began the arduous process of obtaining regulatory approval to produce a vodka made from hempseed in 2017. Considering that both are heavily regulated by all levels of government, it took more than two years for Williams and his business partner to secure the permits they needed to sell the vodka commercially.
For those wondering if hemp-based alcohol is in fact legal, you’re not alone. “Without fail, every time I’m out doing an event, somebody’s going to ask me if they drink the vodka, are they going to be able to pass a drug test,” Williams says. “It took me two and a half years to get through the federal government. Do you really think I would be standing here with you in the middle of a Total Wine store if it wasn’t legal?”
The regulatory delays actually served as a benefit when it came time to figuring out how to filter the hemp-based vodka. In the beginning, Williams used what many a broke college student has used to improve the flavor of their cheap vodka: a Brita water pitcher. Using little chunks of activated charcoal, the pitcher filters out the impurities that give cheap vodka a bad taste — and result in hangovers. Since Williams couldn’t buy a Brita big enough to process thousands of gallons of vodka, he dissected one of the brand’s filters and used it as inspiration to build his own DIY system at a fraction of the cost of a commercial filter.
From there, Highway Vodka went straight into growth mode. The vodka became available to the public in February 2019, and is now sold at bars and liquor stores across the state of Texas. The company has also recently started distributing its vodka in other states, including Georgia, California, and Florida, and is planning to release a barrel-aged, limited-edition hemp-based whiskey later this year. Expansion is in the works locally, too — Williams and Robbins are currently building a tasting room on the distillery’s 7.5-acre grounds that’s intended to feel like a total escape from the city while being only a short drive from Downtown.
Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t think that the wave of marijuana legalization that’s sweeping the country will allow Highway Vodka to expand into the stoner space. “The government isn’t going to allow that,” he says. “Even just CBD, which is federally legal, you can’t blend with alcohol. I don’t think legalization would really change much for us. I don’t see a future where manufacturers would be able to blend spirits and cannabis like that.”