While CBD accounts for most of the hemp industry’s rapid growth and is the end result of nearly 92% of all of the hemp harvested in the United States, according to analysts at New Frontier Data, entrepreneurs across the country are finding new ways to incorporate hemp as an ingredient in a wide range of consumer products.
In Texas, for example, Highway Vodka is the state’s first hemp seed vodka manufacturer and the first Black-owned distillery in the state. The distinctive product has helped catapult the brand to 500% growth year over year.
Ben Williams, the company’s owner and co-founder, says he actually stumbled upon hemp by accident, but says the discovery “literally changed the game for me.”
Williams, an avid home distiller, co-founded Highway Vodka along with childhood friend Wendell Robbins III in February 2019. Williams poured seven years of experimentation into the company’s launch. Locally sourced corn, water from an artesian aquifer and a unique strain of hemp comprise the vodka’s “mash bill,” or the mix of ingredients used to make the beverage. The vodka is distilled six times, keeping only the hearts of the run to preserve the nuance of the grain and oils from the hemp and corn.
Williams says he sources his hemp seed from multiple farms, but hopes to find a Texas farm to keep it local.
According to the company, the hemp acts as a “super fuel” to the yeast performing the conversion from sugars to alcohol. During fermentation, a thick layer of hemp oil forms at the top and results in a product with a different mouth feel than traditional vodkas.
“The use of hemp in the mash is all about what it does for the process every step of the way,” Williams says. “Be it the oils produced during the fermentation, helping to increase the yield of alcohol from each batch by fueling the yeast, changing the viscosity of the liquid coming out of the still, or creating a smoother nuanced vodka, the plant is busy adding value.”
A Houston native from a family with a history of entrepreneurship, Williams went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., before starting his own businesses, including a live events promotion company, which oversaw the national promotion for several Grammy award-winning artists.
After moving back to Houston, Williams served as the business development and financial director at The Imani School, a private, Christian elementary and middle school founded by his mother. In August 2012, Williams partnered with his brother, Chris Williams, a chef, to open Lucille’s restaurant in the Houston Museum District.
“My foray into the hospitality sector eventually sparked an interest in the world of spirits, and it grew from there,” he says.
Williams and the company are also heavily invested in the Houston community. Williams is on the board of Lucille’s 1913, a nonprofit started by his brother and designed to “combat food insecurity and waste, create training and employment opportunities in traditionally under-resourced neighborhoods” and to help feed people in need during the coronavirus pandemic. Like the restaurant, the nonprofit honors the Williams brothers’ grandmother, Lucille B. Smith, a successful entrepreneur who served her famous chili biscuits at the White House and on American Airlines. Highway Vodka donates $1 from each bottle sold and in February used the aquifer at the distillery to donate thousands of liters of bottled water after most of Texas lost power due to a winter storm.
Since the company’s 2019 launch, Williams has led Highway Vodka through robust expansion, including a limited-release whiskey and a tasting room/event center located on eight acres just 10 minutes outside Houston. Highway Vodka is now distributed throughout Texas, Georgia, California and Florida and available online.
Ben Williams, left, seen with his brother Chris Williams, a chef with whom he partners to give back to the Houston community, founded Highway Vodka, the first hemp vodka and first Black-owned distillery in Texas, in 2019. Photo by Ayaan Ahsan/Ahsan’s Media House.