Vodka often goes one of two routes. Either it’s bland and boring, or it’s loaded with artificial flavors and arguably unfit for consumption (you’ll never convince me that raspberry vodka is marketed to adults). The best harness their raw ingredients to create flavor without veering too far outside the desired box. Houston-based Highway Vodka falls firmly into that camp.
Highway holds two notable distinctions: It’s the state’s first Black-owned distillery and the first to make hemp seed vodka. The company was founded by Texas natives and childhood friends Ben Williams and Wendell Robbins, who formerly owned the Houston bar Scrappy Brown’s. Williams also worked with his brother, James Beard Award finalist chef Chris Williams, to open the popular Southern restaurant, Lucille’s.
“We started this as a hobby,” Williams tells InsideHook. The founders bought a small still and began experimenting in a horse barn with various grain recipes, reading books and watching YouTube videos to learn the ropes.
After visiting a dispensary in Los Angeles, they got inspired. “We couldn’t use actual cannabis in Texas, so we began playing with hemp and incorporated that into the mashbill,” Williams says. “We settled on hemp seed, corn and water — it was the best stuff we’d made to that point, and it had this incredible, oily mouthfeel.” And that’s despite the fact that they were using a 13-gallon still, with a Brita filter to polish the spirit.
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Williams and Robbins began blind-tasting friends and restaurant patrons on their DIY vodka, regularly beating out big-name brands, so they decided to make it a business. It was a slog. Permits took three years, partly because the TTB was unfamiliar with hemp seed. “No one had really seen this before, so we hit every red flag along the way,” says Williams, even though they were using food-grade hemp seed, and the vodka contained zero THC or CBD. Finally, they were approved, and in 2019 the business was born. At first, bottles were limited to Houston, but a recent distribution deal has brought the vodka to markets across Texas.
Highway vodka is distilled six times and blended with well water from a nearby aquifer. They’ve come a long way since the Brita days, and they had to build their own filtration system because, as Williams explains, what was readily available didn’t work with the hemp. Now they can control flow rates and exposure to the charcoal filter, stripping out the unnecessary bits without losing that rich mouthfeel they want.
The vodka is soft, sweet and earthy, with notes of vanilla and herbs. It’s a significant departure from many of the neutral options on the market. So, if you like vodka, you’ll like this. If you don’t like vodka, you’ll probably still like this. It’s reasonable to sip it straight or over ice, though it also works nicely in simple cocktails like a Vodka Collins or when mixed with soda or tonic.
Highway Vodka is available all over Texas, as well as select markets in Georgia, South Carolina and California, with more to come. Williams says that Highway is working on a couple new vodkas now, so he hopes to expand the lineup soon. And a portion of the distillery’s hemp-based spirit is currently sitting in barrels, a two-year experiment that will result in an aged product.
Right now, the distillery is a production facility that’s not open to the public. That will change later this year or early 2024, as Highway expands their site to include an adjacent, new-build property with a tasting room and space to give tours. It’s located on seven acres of land with a creek running through it.
“We’re located just outside of downtown, but it feels like the country,” says Williams. So it’s not a bad place to commune with nature, even if that just means sitting at the bar and drinking hemp seed vodka.
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