Food & Drink

This Black-Owned Distillery Uses Hemp to Make Ultra Smooth Vodka

Houston’s Highway Vodka is paving the way for a different kind of a cannabis product.

Highway Vodka founders
Ben Williams, left, and Wendell Robbins III of Highway Vodka. | Photos courtesy of Highway Vodka, design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist.
Ben Williams, left, and Wendell Robbins III of Highway Vodka. | Photos courtesy of Highway Vodka, design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist.

While CBD, or cannabidiol, can be found in just about anything these days—food, drinks, toiletries, and more—a Houston company has decided to use an entirely different part of the cannabis plant: hemp seed.

Founded by lifelong friends Ben Williams and Wendell Robbins III, Highway Vodka launched in 2019 but had been in the works for eight years prior. Williams and Robbins began distilling vodka as a hobby. They visited Williams’ friend in California and were introduced to people distilling with marijuana. After returning home, the duo was inspired to experiment with other parts of the cannabis plant in their distilling and eventually landed on hemp. Once they chose vodka as their base spirit, they started distilling with hemp seed, which provides added benefits and flavor.

“The magic really lies in Highway’s distinct mash, which is rounded out by a unique strain of hemp and corn,” says Williams.

One of the most common questions the founders get is whether their vodka contains marijuana. Hemp is the male part of the cannabis plant and contains no THC unlike in marijuana, the female part of the cannabis plant. Hand bottled at their distillery in Houston, the mash is cooked and transferred to the fermentation phase, during which period hemp oil forms—a quality that separates Highway from other vodkas.

“Once transferred to the still, that same hemp oil acts as one last filtration for adverse congeners, aka the compounds in alcohol that can cause hangovers,” Williams says. “This also yields a smoother product that has a noticeably different viscosity and mouth feel than other vodkas. Highway is only distilled six times in order to preserve the nuance of the grain, thus yielding a product that displays a natural kiss of sweetness paired with earthy notes.”

After they nailed the initial formula and decided to try to take the product to market, they had to apply for the distillery permits. That process alone took two-and-a-half years because of its hemp inclusion. Now, Highway Vodka is the first Black-owned distillery in Houston and making major waves in the spirits industry. On the market for less than two years, the company has seen more than 500% growth year over year.

“There has been a robust discovery for Black-owned products, which has ultimately helped us garner even more support from within our community,” Williams says.

With distribution in Texas, Georgia, California and Florida, and available for home delivery via reservebar.com, Williams and Robbins are slowly hoping to build a hemp vodka empire. Many distributors are hesitant to take a chance on smaller, less-known brands, so it’s a major feat for Highway to be distributed in four states (and counting). Williams says many Black spirits owners face distribution challenges for that reason.

“Ultimately, I want to build a generational brand and company that will truly stand the test of time, while also providing opportunities and pathways for people that look like me and identify with our cultural community,” he says.

Interested in making your own cocktail with Highway Vodka? Try the tropically inspired White Widow cocktail below.

White Widow

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz Highway Vodka
  • 3/4 oz of coconut liqueur
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • 1/2 oz half and half
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 1 egg white

Directions:

1. Add all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Dry shake vigorously for 30 seconds.
2. Add ice, then repeat the shake method.
3. Strain into coupe glass and garnish with a lime.

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