Raising Spirits in the Delta

WORDS and IMAGES Jenny Boulden

The first bottles of Delta Dirt Sweet Blend, a sweet potato vodka made in Helena-West Helena by Harvey and Donna Williams, were ready for private sale just before Christmas, 2020. The Delta Dirt distillery opened to the public in historic downtown Helena in April, and the new company only began distribution to Arkansas liquor stores last November.

As it’s only made at three other distilleries in the United States, few people have tried sweet potato vodka.

But that’s about to change.

Harvey Williams is the focused dreamer who thought up the venture. Aided by Donna’s pragmatism, faith, and their entire family, Harvey translated his crazy idea into case after case of sleek, beautifully branded bottles of vodka that’s hand-crafted from sweet potatoes grown on the Lee County land his family has farmed for four generations, and they’re hoping their new company lasts generations more.

“I think one of the things Donna and I didn’t realize early on was how powerful or how our story resonated with so many people here, and resonated with the area,” Harvey says.

Harvey was a local Marianna farm boy who married Donna, his high school sweetheart, then got an agricultural engineering degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (Donna’s was in information technology).  While Donna worked jobs in IT, banking and health care management, Harvey worked his way up through the ranks of Cargill, Sara Lee and Tyson, working jobs in agricultural engineering, manufacturing, and management in major metro areas like Cincinnati and Chicago. He was managing a Tyson plant near Dallas when in 2016 the couple decided it was time to move back home to be nearer their parents and families.

FIVE GENERATIONS

If you look closely through the clear liquid to the back of the label, you’ll see a subtle graphic representation of the legendarily farmable “Delta Dirt,” light grey specs scattered on the label’s backside. The roots of the Williams’ family and their new business stretch far and deep into that storied, hard-worked alluvial soil.Harvey and Donna are Black entrepreneurs, and the family farm was started by Harvey’s great-grandfather, who sharecropped his eighty-six acres of cotton for a white landowner. “He only sharecropped the land, making just enough to get by, but his son, my granddad, was finally able to purchase it.”

Harvey says, “Donna and I were already in the process of doing this business, and my dad one day comes out with this big jug. Dad says, ‘Hey, you didn’t know this, but your grandad used to moonshine on this land.’” Turns out, the proceeds of moonshine and cotton sales helped his grandfather finally purchase the farm, making him a first-generation Black landowner. They were floored by that revelation.

Today that chocolate brown five-gallon moonshine jug sits next to a framed black-and-white photo of “Papa D” and holds cotton sprigs on a table in the front corner of the distillery, part of a display that tells the history.

Harvey’s father and brother still maintain the family farm, raising acres of sweet potatoes, squash, purple hulls, and other vegetables. Their hard work and expertise are also distilled into each bottle.

The distillery is the newest chapter in that history. Five years ago, an off-hand comment by Harvey’s brother, Kennard, hooked Harvey’s imagination. “He had just come back from a farming conference and was talking about all the exciting things they did in North Carolina with sweet potatoes. He haphazardly mentioned there was a booth selling sweet potato vodka,” Harvey says. It was a “Wait. What?” moment for Harvey. “I started thinking, ‘Hey, we could do that!’ From there we started researching how.”

The Williamses knew they would need help with the business, but they didn’t look far. Their youngest son, Thomas, had just graduated from UA Fayetteville and was considering medical school. His parents asked if he’d be interested in a different kind of science: being the brand’s official Master Distiller. He decided to give it a try.

After completing an immersive professional education in distilling in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas returned home and began helping his parents perfect their recipe. He rejected many batches before finding the exact mix bottled today.

Another son, Donovan, now works in the distillery, and their daughter, Tahara, who serves in the Navy, helped plan the distillery’s savvy cocktail menu.

They say so far, Delta Dirt is proving the banks wrong. The Williamses had to self-finance the bold venture, as every bank approached saw it as too risky. “I think it was just too new a concept for them to wrap their heads around,” Harvey says. “They were too unfamiliar. There are less than a handful of distilleries in the whole state, and this is the Delta. They couldn’t understand how we would make money here.”

A SPACE FOR ALL

“This doesn’t feel like I’m in Helena, anymore,” is something Donna says they hear a lot from first-time visitors to the distillery. The space is a comfortable mix of big-city-sophistication and down-home charm, which Donna says is exactly what they wanted. “We wanted this to be a place where everyone could feel comfortable and at home, whether they’re old or young, Black or white, from here or just visiting,” she says. “Everyone.”

Anchored by a large, U-shaped walnut bar locally built of nearby repurposed wood, the large room has high, exposed ceilings and ample floor space for groups to spread out. Warm leather bar stools with comfortable backs surround the bar, and cushy furniture creates two cozy sitting areas in the middle of the room. The back wall is sheer plexiglass, allowing customers to witness the distillery at work. The big copper still and huge steam towers with fixtures reminiscent of a giant copper clarinet add a sort of working steampunk beauty to the industrial area.

A shiny black grand piano in the corner, and a marble-topped island offering a suitable spot for catered food make for an ideal private event space. They’ve already hosted many events — another way to make the space profitable. Harvey says the one that raised his eyebrows was when a son booked the distillery for the traditional repass after his mother’s funeral, a time for mourners to gather and reminisce. “I said to him, ‘You do know this is a distillery, don’t you?’” Harvey says. “He laughed and said, ‘You’d have to know my mom. She would have loved this place.’”

MAKING SWEET POTATO VODKA WORTH DISTILLING

The reason only four places make sweet potato vodka becomes clear on a tour of the distillery. Sweet potato vodka takes three times the work.

“At first, we tried distilling from pure sweet potatoes, which is what one of the other distilleries does,” Harvey says. “The problem with that was it did not taste good.”

So, they began experimenting with different grains to balance the sweet potatoes. Eventually Thomas settled on a mix of sweet potatoes and corn, both raised on their family farm. The sweet potato distillation is followed by the corn distillation before the two alcohols are blended and go through a third run through the equipment. “That’s why the label says, ‘Sweet Blend,’” Harvey explains. In season, the whole process from harvesting the sweet potatoes and corn to bottling the vodka takes only a week.

Unlike novelty flavored vodkas that have strong artificial flavors like pineapple or whipped cream, the sweet potato vodka does not have a pervasive sweet potato flavoring some might expect. Yet take a sip, and it’s subtly apparent. It’s a complex taste with a soft, mellow earthiness that wraps around your tongue before its sweet finish. It’s fabulous.

It’s also strong. While almost all vodka produced in the U.S. is eighty proof, the Delta Dirt rings in at eighty-six proof. Besides taste, there are symbolic reasons for that. “The original farm my great-grandfather sharecropped was eighty-six acres,” Harvey explains. “So, it’s a way for us to honor that history.”

And, he adds with a smile, ‘86 is also the year he and Donna graduated high school together. “It’s our number!” Donna proclaims.

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Thomas reports that as of early January, there are more than 200 locations in Arkansas now selling the bottled vodka, which runs around twenty-nine dollars in stores (though only twenty-five dollars at the distillery). Thomas says that the tastings held so far in Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas liquor stores have a fifty percent batting average — if he can get customers to try it, they have a fifty percent likelihood of buying a bottle on the spot. This year the company has plans to increase distribution to Mississippi and maybe Tennessee, Harvey says.

And the couple isn’t done innovating.

Soon Delta Dirt’s sweet potato vodka will have two companions, Delta Dirt Gin and Bourbon. The gin (ninety-two proof in honor of Donovan’s birth year) and the bourbon (ninety-four proof in honor of Thomas’) also will be distilled from crops grown on the family farm. The gin has a sunny, bright piquancy with signature juniper notes that come through at the end. It is not yet available for sale.

And Donna and Harvey’s purchase of the distillery’s corner building on Cherry Street also included the two buildings next door. They have plans to improve those, too. Next project: opening an adjacent brick-oven pizza restaurant with a connecting passage between the businesses. Donna says real estate in the once-booming Delta city is “much, much” less expensive than in larger cities. And they love that they’ve infused some entrepreneurial energy into the area on top of offering Delta residents another place to relax and a focal point of pride.

“Downtown Helena is a brilliant place to open a business,” Harvey says. “I remember growing up around here and we would go to downtown Helena to buy our school shoes and things. … You don’t see a whole lot of good news coming out of the Delta. We wanted to try doing something that people here would be proud of. We weren’t sure what to expect, how the whole concept would be received in this area, but people have been so welcoming and excited.”

It turns out the new brand’s tagline, “Raising Spirits in the Delta,” is right on the money.

Because the strongest flavor running through each spirit the family bottles? 100%-proof hope.

870.662.5709
430 Cherry Street, Helena, Arkansas
deltadirtdistillery.com

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