Highway Vodka: A Smooth Journey into Premium Spirits with the First Black Owned Distillery in Texas

In the world of distilled spirits, vodka stands tall as a classic and versatile choice. With countless brands competing for attention, Highway Vodka emerges as a true contender, promising a smooth journey into the realm of premium spirits. From its exceptional quality to its commitment to sustainability, Highway Vodka is redefining what it means to be a top-tier vodka brand.

Highway Vodka is a true grain-to-glass vodka that is crafted by hand in Houston. Launched in 2019 by co-owners and childhood friends Ben Williams and Wendell Robbins III, Highway Vodka is the first hemp-based vodka and Black-owned distillery in Texas. The journey to perfection took nearly 8 years, including 3.5 years to obtain their manufacturing license. The duo first started making vodka in a former horse barn on Robbins property in South Houston in 2012 as a hobby; countless batches and a considerable amount of tasting led to the creation of the exceptional product they offer today. (The barn serves as the location of the Highway Vodka distillery).

Highway Vodka co-founder Wendell Robbins III and Ben Williams

“Highway is a vodka born out of 10 years of distilling as a hobby,” Williams tells thirsty. “Years of reading books, watching YouTube videos and running tons of batches helped us learn the art of distilling spirits and refine our proprietary processes.”

What sets Highway Vodka apart is their unique mash bill. It comprises a distinctive strain of hemp seed, locally sourced corn, and water extracted from their artesian aquifer. Once mashed, the mixture is transferred to the fermentation stage, where it rests for about one to one-and-a-half weeks. During this time, the hemp acts as a potent fuel for the yeast, facilitating the conversion of sugars into alcohol. Simultaneously, a thick layer of hemp oil forms at the top of the fermenter. Notably, Highway Vodka distills on the grain, incorporating everything from the fermenter into the still.

“While we only use 3 ingredients — hemp seed, corn and water — the hard part was figuring out all the different variables,” Williams says. “What are the ratios of hemp to corn? What type of hemp seed has the highest fat content? How do we develop our own filtration system?”

The distillation process occurs six times, with only the “hearts” of the run being preserved. This approach allows the nuances of the grain and oils from the hemp and corn to shine, resulting in a remarkably smooth and flavorful vodka. The viscosity and mouthfeel of Highway Vodka differ from other vodkas, providing a unique experience for enthusiasts. It is truly a vodka designed to be savored, particularly for those who appreciate the distinct character of hemp.

“You really notice the difference in our product once the fermentation process starts,” explains Williams. “That’s when the hemp seed really gets active, which allows a couple of things to manifest. First, the seed acts as a natural yeast nutrient that makes our yields of alcohol larger per batch. Second, the oils from the hemp seed (hence why the fat content is important) form during this period. We transfer all contents, including that oil, into the still. The hemp oil floats on top of the liquid acting as a first layer of filtration as the vapors begin to rise. Think poo-pourri … it helps keep the stuff you don’t want coming up, from coming up!”

There are four parts to distillation — the foreshots, heads, hearts and tails, Williams continues. “The last two are drinkable, but the tails are where the trouble lives the next morning … so we don’t bottle that. As those vapors continue to go through the column, we only collect the hearts of the run, which boil off in a certain temperature range. So, when you drink Highway, you’re only getting the purest part of the run.”

The brand’s filtration system is also integral to the finished product. Their meticulous filtration process is one-of-a-kind in the craft spirits industry, resulting in a finished bottle that represents their dedication to perfection. The distillation method and equipment used by Highway were developed through years of research, emphasizing their commitment to creating a vodka that is truly crafted from scratch.

“We built our own filtration/polishing system by hand, which doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Williams reveals. “It was all fashioned by our own design. This has allowed us to create what we’d like to think is the smoothest vodka on the market. It truly helped us bring sipping back to vodka.”

Another integral part of the Highway Vodka team? Apprentice Distiller Lekedra Howard. “As an apprentice distiller and a Black woman, I know how important representation is, especially for younger generations,” Howard tells thirsty. “It’s essential for them to see someone that looks like them in this kind of role because it’s evidence that it’s possible to break through barriers and pursue their passions — even if it’s in a traditionally male-dominated industry. I hope that my presence as an apprentice distiller at Highway Vodka will inspire and encourage more women, especially Black women, to take on leadership roles in their respective fields. It’s truly an honor to be a part of such a strong team, the majority of whom are women who play a massively integral part in Highway’s success.”

Highway Distillery has embarked on a mission to infuse vodka — made from a mash that is free from gluten, CBD, and THC, ensuring a clean and pure vodka — with its own personality. “Always, always, always put passion first,” Williams advises. “If you love it and believe in it and want to do it, then do it. There is no such thing as ‘no’ when passion is your fuel. The catch is that in entrepreneurship, it takes time for passion to yield all things — success, money, output, and results. That’s why you must be in it for something more than money, especially when we think about the disparities at play. There is no such thing as overnight success, and that’s especially true when thinking about growing businesses led by historically underrepresented communities. Focus on the purpose and passion is necessary to fuel the dream through any obstacles that may come.”

One reason the product took so long to get to shelves was the use of hemp — a novel concept when the brand was born. “Highway will probably be forever linked with cannabis culture simply because hemp is an element of cannabis — it’s the male version of the plant that is THC and CBD free,” Williams explains. “That proximity contributed to a nearly three-year evaluation process ahead of getting our formula approved by regulators. We were so novel they didn’t know what to do with us!”

Now that Highway Vodka is on the shelves, Williams says the brand enjoys “a bit of cheeky play with that linkage and also aims to celebrate and serve the communities who consume both or either cannabinoids and hemp, be it recreationally or holistically. Beyond contributing to the indulgence and celebration of the benefits of this plant, however, we are equally committed to creating a positive impact on the communities who have been unjustly disenfranchised and/or criminalized because of it. As we grow our reach, we have been exploring the ways that we can be most effective in doing so and look forward to finding our lane as advocates and agents for the remediation of these injustices.”

Crafted with precision and care, Highway Vodka embodies the essence of excellence. Each bottle is meticulously produced using the finest ingredients and a meticulous distillation process. The result is a vodka that boasts unrivaled smoothness and a distinct flavor profile, capturing the attention of connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. Whether enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or as a key ingredient in cocktails, Highway Vodka delivers a sensory experience that leaves a lasting impression to both consumers and the hospitality community at large.

“We understand that bartenders must be incredibly discerning and so is the Highway consumer, so our product is a higher quality than what you’d typically find in a well,” he says. “But for those bartenders who are creative and dedicated to the craft, Highway’s versatility will be appealing. We think it could easily become bartenders’ go-to vodka when crafting thoughtful cocktails. The nuance, texture, viscosity, mouthfeel and nose of Highway are unlike any other. Those oils we spoke about earlier really come to play in this realm, making Highway an essential building block for a serious vodka-based cocktail. I’ve been told by some very respected industry folks that Highway is the most buildable vodka they have created with, so our goal is to continue exposing the product to as many bartenders as possible, because we know it can make a difference in the craft.”

However, Highway Vodka’s appeal extends beyond its exquisite taste. As a brand committed to environmental sustainability, they have made significant strides towards reducing their carbon footprint. From sourcing organic ingredients to implementing eco-friendly packaging, Highway Vodka showcases a dedication to the planet while never compromising on quality. Consumers can sip on their favorite cocktail knowing that they are supporting a brand that shares their values.

“At Highway, we are committed to empowering others, especially in the food, beverage and hospitality community,” explains Williams. “Simply put, we want to give a platform to these communities that moves them closer to actualizing their dreams. So, everything we activate for the industry is with that goal in mind. We would be nowhere without the talented, experienced and passionate bartender community who understand not just the quality and versatility of our spirit, but the authenticity and soul of our brand.”

Williams believes that Highway Vodka serves as a disruptor in the industry, touting the first major innovation in the vodka category in decades. “We’re also working to disrupt from a growth perspective by prioritizing people over product. That means that consumers and trade professionals are equally important to us, and we endeavor to serve them both fervently. One example that we have in the works is a content series that shines a light on the bar community, highlighting their talents and personalities and promoting their place of business. We want to make sure we are opening our platform and community up to create opportunities and exposure for our industry partners.”

What sets Highway Vodka apart is its unwavering commitment to innovation. Constantly pushing boundaries, their aim is to engage customers with exciting and unexpected experiences, keeping the Highway Vodka journey fresh and exhilarating.

Moreover, Highway Vodka actively cultivates a sense of community. By hosting events, sponsoring local initiatives, and supporting charitable causes, the brand encourages consumers to connect and share their passion for a great vodka. It’s more than just a bottle on the shelf—it’s a brand that brings people together.

Highway Vodka is a true standout in the world of premium spirits. With its unparalleled quality, commitment to sustainability, innovative approach, and community engagement, this vodka takes drinkers on a smooth journey that leaves them craving more. So, the next time you’re seeking a high-quality vodka that embodies excellence and adventure, buckle up and hit the Highway.

“I would say that Highway Vodka is a revolutionary, uniquely smooth spirit that is differentiated by its use of hemp seed throughout the distillation process as well as its one-of-a-kind filtration method that was created by folks who relentlessly pursued their passion in the hobby of distilling,” Williams concludes. “Our hope is that this journey will inspire the next generation of visionaries to forge their own lane.”

For more info, visit HighwayVodka.com.

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