Ep 349 – Hemp Vodka is Taking Off, Here’s Why…

ben williams highway

A new hemp seed vodka is winning taste tests and garnering devotees across Texas. Here to tell us about it is Ben Williams, founder of Highway Vodka.

Learn more at https://www.highwayvodka.com

Key Takeaways:

[00:45] An inside look at Highway Vodka, the first vodka created from hemp

[1:12] Ben’s background in the restaurant and bar industry and how he came to start Highway Vodka

[2:11] Why hemp produces a smoother vodka than most traditional grains and how Ben figured this out over years of experimentation

[7:08] The permits required to sell hemp-based alcohol

[13:43] Highway vodka’s unique flavor profile and how it compares to other spirits

[18:44] How Highway Vodka contains virtually no congeners, making the drink low-calorie and less likely to cause a hangover

[24:27] Books that have had a big impact on Ben’s life and way of thinking

[28:16] Ben’s thoughts on legalization in Texas and other southern states

Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew Kind: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday, look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com. That's C-A-N-N-A insider dot com. Now here's your program.

Today we're going to hear how a new hemp seed vodka is winning taste tests and garnering devotees across Texas. I'm pleased to welcome Ben Williams, founder of Highway Vodka to the show. Ben, welcome to CannaInsider.

Ben Williams: Hey man. Thanks so much for having me, great to be here.

Matthew: Give us a sense of geography, where are you in the world today?

Ben: I'm in Houston, Texas.

Matthew: Good place to dream up your plans for Highway Vodka. Tell us, what is Highway Vodka?

Ben: Highway Vodka basically is the result of about eight years of tinkering and messing around, learning how to distill spirits, basically a hemp-based spirit that's grain to glass using nothing but hemp, corn and water, that's it.

Matthew: Ben, share a little bit about your background and journey and how you got into this space, became a distiller of spirits and started Highway Vodka.

Ben: I owned a couple of bars and restaurants beforehand and just literally got into distilling as a hobby, just curiosity and all that kind of stuff. Just bought a little 13-gallon steel online and I started reading every book I could find, then every YouTube video I could watch, and literally just picked it up as a hobby. Just doing that for a couple of years with a business partner and stumbled across him and changed everything and just went from there with it. Like I said, it was just literally a hobby that turned into a business over the course of about eight years or so. It wasn't an overnight thing at all.

Matthew: Eight years of tinkering getting used to it, how did the idea of hemp come into the picture?

Ben: After being in distilling for about two or three years, started off with just a sugar wash, then just messing with a bunch of different grains, went to California, a friend of mine opened up a dispensary out there and he introduced me to some friends of his that were distilling with marijuana. I knew enough about distilling at the time to notice what was going on in the various stages of the process, what they were doing. I liked a lot of the things I saw, obviously, I couldn't mess with marijuana in Texas so I just started ordering every part of the hemp plant that I could find, trying to see how I could incorporate it because I liked some of the things I saw like viscosity differences and stuff like that.

Just started doing that over literally some years and a bunch of different meshes and runs, stumbled upon the thing that's right in front of you, the hemp seed. Of course, it's always the easiest thing but you don't start there, it can't be that simple. Found that, that actually wasn't simple because then it became about figuring out ratios. I'm not a scientist by any means neither is my partner, but this was literally just a trial and error, just messing around, you stumble upon this and you stumble upon that.

One of the big things we stumbled upon that was a game-changer was we were using the hemp seed and stuff like that, we would always rack the liquid off from in-between the oils that were formed during the fermentation period and the grain beneath, and then one day out of just being lazy, we just dumped all that stuff in there because racking is a messy, sticky process. We were like, "Just throw it out there, who cares?" Boom, game changer. That's how, it's interesting. That's really been this trajectory of Highway Vodka, has been a lot of moments like that that have changed everything. We're totally not planning, just like, "Who cares?" Then, "Oh, really? Wow."

Matthew: You and I were chatting earlier and you told me that the key to know if you're making good vodka and in this case, FC Vodka, is people's face, their face doesn't lie. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Ben: During the process, we would go to the bars and restaurants and let regulars taste the little stuff we're making like, "Hey, you want to try something?" In the beginning, oh man, people are just like, "Are you trying to kill me?" All this kind of stuff. As we got better and better and better and then once we introduced the hemp and then once we started distilling on the grain, completing with the oil and everything, that was one of the big things because it's like this is like the only thing I know how to cook. It was really personal to me. Every person that I've put this before, I'm watching your face to see what you think about what I cooked, you know what I'm saying?

Matthew: Yes.

Ben: I'll never forget, there is a group of women up at the bar, I knew them and I was just like, "Hey, guys want to try something?" Then everybody wanted to taste it neat in room temperature for some strange reason, nobody drinks vodka that way but that's how they wanted to do it. That actually turned out to be a gift because learning to gear it towards that palette. I gave it to them and watching their face and their face didn't curl up, it went into like, this is nice kind of face. I was just like, "Yes, that's it right there."

[laughter]

Matthew: If their lips and cheek curl up like they just sucked on a lemon then you're like, "Oh, let's go back to drawing board."

Ben: Yes, back to the drawing board. When I saw that I was just like, "Okay. We're really onto something here."

Matthew: That's pretty nice because you figured out a truth detector there because when you ingest something, especially like alcohol that has this level of concentration, you're going to have a facial reaction.

Ben: Oh dude, their face does not lie. I'm sitting there like-- Every time I do a sampling or tasting and meet the maker events in the liquor store, wherever and people come and they get their sample, I'm just studying your face because if your face cracks wrong-- [laughs] Fortunately, it doesn't happen often but I'm watching. Your face is going to tell the truth. Won a way lot more than the loss, so tat's what gave me the confidence to push forward.

Matthew: Do you have to get a special kind of permit for the type of vodka or how does that work?

Ben: Permitting, yes. That was a two-and-a-half-year process on getting those permits through-- You have to start all the way from the federal government, all the way down to your smallest local governing entity to get an actual manufacturing for distilled spirits permit. Yes man, it was a two-and-a-half-year process, mainly because of the hemp because I guess it's just not a thing they deal with often up there. They didn't really know, "Okay, what is this?" I had to go through so many rounds of federal testing by different labs that they okay basically, testing for THC and all that kind of stuff. It was quite a process.

The biggest thing about this too is that before you can even apply which would be one of the largest barriers of entry into the industry if you want to be a manufacturer, you have to already have your facility locked down, lease agreements, whatever the deal is and that has to be approved before you can even submit your application. Imagine in my situation of having to, say, lease a facility for two and a half years not even knowing if you're going to actually get this permit but it worked out for us.

Matthew: Man, that seems really backwards, doesn't it?

Ben: Yes. I don't get it but it is what it is, The beautiful part and other, falling backwards into something moment was my partner. He was big into horses and riding, cutting the horses and stuff like this, he had this big barn and on top of the barn he actually had his construction offices as well. We use the barn, some land that he already owned in the building, he already owned free and clear, as our site.

Matthew: Nice. Good idea.

Ben: We weren't stuck with paying rent and stuff like that, it made it easier for us to stomach the two and a half year process because we have the site. We're just still a hobby and along the way like, "That'd be cool if it happens, whatever." It wasn't anybody's primary dream, we were just trying to see it through. When we finally got the permit, another backwards moment, my partner actually broke his ankle messing with his horses and he was like, "Man, I'm done with horses. I'm finished. I'm over this." Then that was right around the time the permit came. Like, "Hey, the permit came. Let's get rid of them. Let's build the distillery in here," and that's what we did. When I tell you-- When I think about that out loud, when I say that out loud, it is funny. There's so many just weird things like that just fell in place at the right time, you know?

Matthew: Yes.

Ben: It's really interesting and same thing with my distribution. It's a similar story to that.

Matthew: I'd always rather be lucky than right.

Ben: Yes, but you know what's interesting, man, is you can be lucky but if you're not prepared for that lucky moment, it's going to go right by you. Like with distribution, same thing. I thought from my relationships in the restaurant industry and stuff that-- I had nurtured these relationships with some of the distributors and they were all like, "Yes, we got you," whatever. Right? Then, when I had to show it with my permit, I'm like, "Okay, I'm ready." You know what I'm saying? "Now, what's the next step?" "We're not going to do anything with it. This company doesn't want anything to do with anything remotely associated with the cannabis industry. They think anything cannabis related is a threat to the spirits industry--"

Matthew: The devil.

Ben: Yes, man. Meanwhile, you're selling spirits like crazy but whatever. That was just one reason for a turn down I got from a very large company that I thought I was in with, but, man, that turned out to be-- I'll never forget this meeting because this really pissed me off. We'd nurtured a relationship, thought I was good to go, called him over to the restaurant, one of my spots for lunch to eat lunch, and he just goes down this rabbit hole of why it's not going to work. Now, mind you, I had to deal with it all positive to this point. He goes down a rabbit hole of why it's not going to work, blah, blah, blah, the cannabis tie-in thing, they don't like that, whatever. Then, he's like, "[unintelligible [00:12:02] to hook you up with a broker and you can get your little pet project into a store or two."

I just got up from the table, and I was like, "Hey, they'll bring you your check. No problem, see you later." I walked out of the place, called a buddy of mine just to rant. He said, "Hey, let me call a buddy of mine and see if he can point you in another direction," or whatever. That guy that he called happened to be Tom Montague who's now the VP of Silver Eagle Distributors which is like a Budweiser house which is the largest beer distributor in the country, right? They're like, "Hey, we're about to look at spirits. Let us take a look at it. We're about to start distributing spirits." Same thing. Had that meeting, did the blind taste test against two other brands, won it unanimously, became their first spirit, and it just rolled on from there.

That's why I'm saying lucky-- How lucky can you get for a friend of yours to call this guy and ask him and then they actually be looking for a spirit. You know what I mean? I'd never even entered in the ballpark. Then, also to have a quality product that I'll put up against anything, I don't care what it is, that they liked. You know what I'm saying? Where the opportunity met preparation or however that goes. You see, that's just the whole-- You see everything that's happened, there was no master plan. It's you plan and you get this far and then you hit a wall and then as you rebound, you fall backwards from running into that wall, you fall into this. You know what I mean?

Matthew: Yes.

Ben: [unintelligible [00:13:42].

Matthew: I want listeners really to understand what the flavor profile is here and how it compares to other spirits so they can really understand that. You talked about the finish a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about how you experience it and what people's first adjectives they use when they describe it after taking a shot?

Ben: The first thing they always say is smooth. That's the first thing. No burn. Smooth. The second thing I hear-- I'm just literally just giving you the words that come out of people's mouths when you described it that way, that's perfect. I'm just running it through my head. Smooth. Sweet. Nice. I like that one too. [laughs] I want to get a lot of, "That's good," because what it is, man, is-- The whole thing, it's about-- Again, it comes back to the hemp within that oil, right? What that oil is doing is-- It's not only knocking the burn off, it's making it a little bit more-- making it easier to go down. You know what I'm saying? Giving it a little bit more legs than your standard vodka would have.

Then, also, what oil does in cooking, this whole flavor's on your palate. Then, it's snatching [unintelligible 00:14:53] to the sweetness from the corn in the [unintelligible 00:14:57] and holding that on your palate a little bit more. It gives you more of a sweeter-- but not sweet like sugar, but just a sweet finish and a smooth experience so that you can-- Often, people will say, "Hey, I could just drink this neat or I could drink this just on ice. I wouldn't need anything with this. Most vodkas you have to mix with this or that. I would just drink this smooth because there's character there." You know what I'm saying? That's basically how I would describe it, nice, smooth with a little sweet finish.

Matthew: What about the burn? The burn is-- that's why it's smooth because the burn's muted?

Ben: Yes, no burn. That's what I'm saying about the oil.

Matthew: How does the hemp affect the viscosity?

Ben: Those oils that I was telling you about that form during the fermentation period, a couple of things happen there. The hemp actually acts as nutrient for my yeast, so it makes the yeast live longer and produce more alcohol. My yields per batch got larger when I started using the plant. When you throw all that stuff in the still, that oil floats on top of the still acting as almost like the first layer of filtration with the-- Think like pot pourri, how that functions, right? Those vapors got to come up through that thick layer of oil first before they get to the copper plates in the column, right?

By distilling only six times and by collecting only the hearts of the run which is the purest part and the sweetest part of the run, of the distillate-- which you'll notice is when it comes off, it has-- If you-- Let me see, how can I just explain and make it more visual? You know how you can ring your glass with something and it tangs a little bit? You know what I mean? It just has a little cling to the side of the glass and it-

Matthew: Sure.

Ben: -creeps? That's exactly the viscosity change that I speak of that Highway has. That little nuance of body, that little extra body that it-- I like a little extra body. [laughs] That little extra body is what holds those flavors and whatnot just enough to knock that burn out of there and coach your tongue a little bit and make it just a smoother experience so there is no burn. Like I said, that's what yields to the happy face instead of the sad face that-- when people look for it. That's [inaudible [00:17:36].

Matthew: That residue is-- That's the key difference.

Ben: I don't know. Residue? It's not an appealing term. Let's just say, that oil, that light oil that's present that gives it just a little bit more density, not as dense as wine but not as watery, let's just say, as your standard vodka, right? Just a slight, almost really imperceptible-- The only reason I know it is because I look at this stuff so hard but the easiest test, ring your glass with some Highway, ring your glass with some-- whatever else, and you'll just notice the time that it takes, just those couple of half seconds that it takes creeping down the side of your glass, and that's what it's about.

Ben: Okay. There's a little bit of an essence there.

Ben: Yes. Essence. I like that. [laughs]

Matthew: [laughs]

Ben: It's only 57 calories. I didn't know that until recently.

Matthew: Let's talk about that because White Claw and these seltzers and different things are really eating into the beer market. People are concerned about calories and hangover. Talk a little about calories and hangover if you would.

Ben: It's interesting. It was never designed to be such, right? It wasn't like, "Let's make some kind of low cal--" I wouldn't even know how to do that if you asked me to be honest. Literally, I guess it's just the simplicity of our [unintelligible 00:19:13], just keeping it honest, just the good old hemp, corn, and water and run with it. I don't know, man. I just took it one day and I just said, "We need to test it."

I sent it back to one of those labs that we had to get it tested at for the government or whatever just to get the calorie stuff, and it came back at 57 calories per serving. I was just like, "Okay." I started looking that up and I didn't realize that that actually put us at the lower end of the spectrum as far as calories go, down there where the ones that actually are designed to be low calorie are, not as low as Skinnygirl or one of those other deals but not far from them at all, literally seven, eight calories. You know what I mean? It just made me wonder, "God, what are people putting in this stuff after the fact?" You know what I'm saying?

Matthew: What are they putting in there? I'm curious.

Ben: They're putting sugar in that. Oh, man. This weekend I was in a Total wine store in Austin. I was doing an event there. Before it started I was just walking up and down the aisle. I'm looking at some stuff and I'm seeing floaties and stuff like that. I'm looking at this one bottle and it was just like, "What is that? Is that sugar?" It just made me think there's a lot going on after the fact. There's coloring. You know what I'm saying? There's all kinds of things that are being added but I don't know why or what for because unless it's a flavored product, I don't get it. Maybe it's something that I'm missing I don't know about or whatever.

I have no idea what it could be but there's definitely something going on after the fact because I don't-- I didn't intend for it to be that way. I just make the stuff how I make it. Maybe it's in the cuts that I make by only keeping the hearts versus the tail. I don't know, but it really made me wonder for it not to be designed to be such and it just ends up that way. I wish I knew what it was, that's why I wish I was scientist. I have no real explanation for why, but I do know that there is some funny business going on after the fact. There has to be. As far as what's--

Matthew: You mentioned the hearts and tail thing. I know you mentioned that before but I just want to make sure listeners really understand what you mean when you say that. If you could just go over that one more time.

Ben: In distilling, there's four parts to every run. There's the four sets. The heads, the hearts, and the tail, and they all boil off at specific temperature range. The first two parts that come off are not really drinkable. You've heard moonshine blindness and all that stuff. If you drink that stuff, you're in trouble. Now, the hearts and the tails you can consume and most people that are really trying to get the most out of their batches and stuff like that part-- If you want every drinkable part of alcohol out of a batch, you'll blend those two items together to just squeeze it dry, for lack of a better word. A lot of people do that.

A lot of those continuous still operations where you get really huge and you just can't afford to turn it off, that's what you find. They never turn it on so they don't really have any going on and whatever. You can drink that stuff, but that's where a lot of the headaches and stuff lie and that's where a lot of the funny business that you don't really necessarily prefer to have in your glass. You know what I'm saying? Will you be okay? That's relative because you'll probably have a horrible headache in the morning. You know what I'm saying? If you overdo it. Well, that's with anything you overdo.

That was all just from me reading and stuff like that. Learning about the differences of the cuts and so that's why I just narrowed in on the heart because again, it was just for us and family and friends or whatever so I had no use for tails. It wasn't a business at that point. Then when it came time to scale, I didn't want to learn how to deal with tails because it took me long enough just to get this thing right. I just stayed with it. All hearts, no tails. That's basically what that means. Those temperature ranges vary depending on the climate, depending on what type of equipment you're using, and stuff like that. It's a very key part in making something unique and stuff like that. You want to really pay attention to your cuts.

Matthew: Well, you have a really interesting story how you persisted with the distribution. You worked hard. Opportunities came up and you were able to capitalize on them because you were ready. That's really the story of persistence and grit. I think that aspect of the entrepreneur is sometimes underestimated. Just that grit to keep on going when it's not clear what to do next. Well done there.

Ben: Appreciate it. Thank you.

Matthew: Well, Ben, I'd like to ask a few personal development questions before we wrap up the interview. Is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or your way of thinking that you'd like to share?

Ben: Yes. I would say there's two books actually. I was just thinking of one that's directly related to the business that I'm in. That's just The Home Distilling and Infusing Handbook. [laughs] It's like a little handbook literally. I actually talked to the guy. I reached out to him way back many years ago because he was doing little consulting classes and he was teaching people how to do it. I tried but he had since retired. I didn't realize how long the book had been in print at that point but I actually didn't touch on it, it was cool.

Anyway, that book just made me-- just opened the door as far as what, in the most layman's terms as possible, what distilling is and how you can do it because subsequently after that I read so many other books and some of them read like chemistry books. They're just too much. You know what I'm saying? That book, The Home Distilling and Infusing Handbook, was just a nice easier thing to get into or whatever. I'm sorry. It's called The Home Distiller's Workbook. That's my fault. Home Distiller's Workbook. Anyway, that was a great one.

Then the next one that led to what you were talking about at the end as far as the entrepreneurial aspect of this business would be The Alchemist. I have a ton of books. I read books all the time, but I just read this one lately and this has been really on my mind a lot. It speaks directly to what you were just saying about how as you come up to these roadblocks, how do you navigate them? Do you stop there or what? The Alchemist is the story of that guy who's just full of moments where he could have turned back but he always found a reason why and he was always propelled forward by the people that he met along the way. One person he met, the guy was more--

They have this idea of going to Mecca. A guy that he met and was working with was like, "I'm just more cool. I'm actually going to Mecca. I'm just cool with just the thought of going." I saw how that could happen. You know what I mean? Because you get these ideas and they're cool to think about. You know what I'm saying? You can just spend so much time just zoning in your own thoughts of what it could be instead of actually trying to make it happen because it's daunting. It's heavy to get out there and try to do whatever. I understood how he was-- and I find that even today. I fanciful think about, "Oh, worldwide distribution would be so great." Then I'm just like, "Well, that's going to be so hard."

[laughter]

It's not my thing. I still forge along towards it at my own pace or whatever. I love that because the biggest thing about being an entrepreneur, especially when you don't play with other people's money and it's your own money invested, you have no choice but to figure it out because it's easy to walk away from some investors like, "It didn't work out, guys. I'm sorry," whatever. Versus when this it's your own money and you're just like, "Oh no, no. I'm not losing this." You know what I'm saying? "I got to figure this out." That's a big difference.

Matthew: What's the most interesting thing going on in your field besides what you're doing?

Ben: You mean in spirits as a whole?

Matthew: Sure. Spirits, hemp, anything in that area.

Ben: Gosh. Well, I think the most interesting thing-- [laughs] I have one. In Texas, obviously, it's not legal but it's really interesting to watch the fine line that's being danced between CBD shops and so forth. I find that really interesting how it's just a precursor for legalization that I think is really interesting to watch. It reminds me of the game room thing. I don't know if you're familiar but where gambling isn't legal, they'll have these game rooms that run right on the line. You know what I'm saying? They're able to operate some kind of way. They operate and they do what they do. It's just a precursor for legalization.

I find that just really interesting and fascinating to watch because you got to have a lot of courage to dance on that line, number one. Number two, my God though, you're right on the forefront, so when it does break you're there. You know what I mean? I give kudos to those folks that do that but as far as spirits go, I don't know, man. I'm just learning every single day as far as this thing goes and I just find that exciting, period, because I just love to learn new stuff and see what's going on and see how I can get into it, and then learning how to mitigate your own growth, which is really a thing that I've been trying to wrap my own mind around and not ride out further than you can, even though you can technically, but really, can you? You know what I mean? I can definitely go national, but can you support and really work those markets?

Now, we're in Texas, Georgia, Southern California and Florida in brick and mortar, and then obviously, through ReserveBar.com, we're available by delivery pretty much all across the country. As far as activating new territories on the ground, you don't want to just run out there and do that. I hear people all the time, they're saying like, "Oh, we're in 20 states," and I'm just like, "Actually, you have a case in 20 states, but what does reorders look like?" That's what I want to know and stuff like that.

It's just an interesting process just trying to learn the business and trying to learn how to grow a company beyond your own city's boundaries. It's just something that's fascinating to me. I don't know if that's answered your question as far as experience goes, but as far as my perspective of experience, that's what I'm into.

Matthew: All right. Ben, final question. What is your favorite unhealthy comfort food or guilty pleasure?

Ben: Dude, that's a whole another show right there. I don't know. You can start with pizza or cheeseburgers. I love anything that's, like they say, "You should not eat that." I love it. I love it. I love it. I was talking to my brother about that the other day. I was like, "Dude." I was saying, "I really think there's something that they put in the pizza sauce or ketchup and stuff like that because it activates-- When it hits my mouth, I feel happiness." He's like, "No, dude. That's just your drug."

[laughter]

It does. I love all that shit. That'd be messed up. That stuff is great, dude. A good cheeseburger with bacon, fries and a coke, let's do it. I know you can't and I try not to do it often, but man, when I do it, I'm in heaven.

Matthew: Good. You mentioned again where Highway Vodka is available and also the online store and how people could connect and find you online.

Ben: On the social stuff, it's just Highway Vodka on everything. Around Texas, Total Wine, Specs and all the normal stores. Georgia, the same. I can't remember all the stores out there, but pretty much through brick and mortar stores in Georgia. I wish I could remember the names of these places, but I just can't. Southern California, Southern Florida, brick and mortar. Mainly, if you walk in any of those places, you don't just see it, or you live outside of those areas, then ReserveBar.com, or you can just go to HighwayVodka.com, click the link there to ReserveBar and then you could order it right to your door right there. That's really nice and easy.

Matthew: All right. Any restaurants, bars, or alcohol distributors listening, if they want to learn more about that, is there a way?

Ben: Yes, they could go to the website, too. HighwayVodka.com. Right there, there's a button to push for those inquiries and stuff. We could get them linked up for sure with distributors in their area. If we're not in your state yet, we'll be coming soon. Maybe you'll be the jump off for that state, so that's always cool.

Matthew: Well, Ben, thanks so much for coming on. What an interesting journey you've had. Again, I really admire your grit and determination. Good luck with everything in the rest of 2021.

Ben: Thank you so much for everything. I appreciate it. Thanks for the opportunity to be on.

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