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First hemp vodka in Texas makes its way to Austin

Ben Williams and Wendell Robbins III started their award-winning vodka business nine years ago in a horse barn. (Highway Vodka)

From humble origins in a horse barn to booming sales in three states, Texas' first hemp vodka distillery has become one of the fastest-growing Black distilleries in the U.S. in just a few years of business. Their latest stop? Austin, Texas.

Highway Vodka, founded by partners Ben Williams and Wendell Robbins III, is available for sale at over 25 retailers in Austin alongside cities across Texas, Georgia, Florida and California. The company, which is the first Black-owned distillery in the state of Texas, is almost growing too quickly—Williams said they're looking to slow down for a second before they spread too thin.

"We don't have any outside investors or anything like that, so I want to make sure I know what I'm doing," Williams said.

So why hemp? CBD is illegal to use in the distilling process, so the only effects the ingredient really adds to the mix is anti-inflammatory properties.

Hemp comes more into play in the distilling process itself. When experimenting with the ingredient in initial stages, Williams and Robbins discovered that hemp acts as a "super fuel" to the yeast as it converts sugar from its other main ingredient, corn, into alcohol (which also adds a slightly sweet taste.) The plant that helps make Mary Jane also "keeps the negative stuff down" by helping form an oily layer on top that protects the product from outside influence. The result, Williams said, is a smoother vodka that won't make the morning after drinking quite so bad.

"(Adding hemp) is not about flavor at all," Williams said. "I'm my own crash test dummy, so I know even if I overdid it the night before, I'm not getting that headache I might otherwise get."

Highway's journey started eight years ago in a horse barn in Houston when the two buddies decided to start experimenting with spirits as a hobby. After 9 years of trial and error and "a whole lot of drinking," the bustling business has seen an increase of 500% year-over-year.

Williams and Robbins still operate within their original horse barn. (Highway Vodka)

Williams said it's no coincidence that the two love live music, drinking, and socializing at bars and restaurants; if the two were just in it for the money, he said the industry would "eat them alive."

"That's the biggest thing, to like what you're doing," Williams said. "Now I have a product that can play into all of these spaces that I enjoy."

When asked if he expected to see this kind of short-term growth, Williams simply said "no." Now that business is booming, however, Williams sees the company expanding nationwide in the next several years after they take a minute to regroup.

While Williams and Robbins are happy with their success, the most important thing is building a business that can be passed down the family. Robbins's daughter Codi Fuller has already started the legacy; at 26, she became the one of the only Black female distillers in the United States as she took the helm as Lead Distiller.

Robbins' daughter Codi Fuller is one of the only female Black distillers in the United States. (Highway Vodka)

Williams hopes his younger daughters will eventually follow suit.

"That's the dream," Williams said. "That's what you're building it for. I'm just hoping they don't go, 'Oh, that's dad's stuff' and think it's not cool."


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