Arkansas farming family turns to vodka distillery

By: KATV Mills Hayes

LITTLE ROCK (KATV) — It’s no secret that it’s been a destructive year to the US and global economy because of COVID-19.

But for one Arkansas family, it gave them the perfect opportunity to hunker down and perfect their recipe that would build a new business: Delta Dirt Distillery.

It all starts on a farm in Helena where four generations of the Williams family have farmed zucchini, squash, corn, and since the 1980s, sweet potatoes.

“This the farm that my dad was raised on and his dad and even his dad was on this farm,” Harvey Williams said.

Harvey’s brother, Kennard Williams, farms all the crops used at the distillery to make the vodka that started it all.

“The potato beds, we should cut them by mid-June. We usually cut them by the end of May. We’re a couple of weeks behind because of the weather,” Kennard said.

Kennard went off to a farming convention where he brought back the sweet potatoes vodka idea and sparked his brother Harvey’s imagination.

“My wife and I went on to have a career in food processing, but I’ve always wanted to come back,” Harvey said.

Harvey went to the University of Arkansas and got a degree in agriculture and engineering. His plan was to come back to Helena and be a smart farmer.

Instead, he and his wife went on to have a career in food processing. The couple was living in Dallas when they decided to venture into the distillery business and finally come back home to the farm.

“We actually got our license our Arkansas business license in 2017 and then the work really began,” Harvey said.

Harvey moved back to Arkansas before his wife to get started on the business. Eventually, Donna joined him and the two went to work filing for business licenses, alcohol licenses, and finding a distillery location. Then COVID-19 hit.

“There were equipment delays related to Covid and construction delays, but we persevered,” Harvey said.

While the pandemic put a halt to the family’s plans, Harvey now sees the silver lining.

“I think the time allowed us the space to get the product right. Get the space right and get the facility. Just kind of think through some things,” Harvey said.

Delta Dirt perfected the vodka recipe by December 2020. The distiller? None other than Harvey and Donna’s own son, Thomas.

“The plan was to do something in the medical field. At the time I was looking at applying to PA schools and that was back in 2018,” Thomas said. But then his mom and dad asked for help and sent Thomas off to distillery school in Louisville, Kentucky. “I’m a distiller so I’m using my science background, just a little bit different.”

So different that the 25-year-old landed a spot on Moonshiners: Master Distiller on the Discovery Channel.

“It’s been quite a transformation. I went from no knowledge to being on a show with a bunch of experts,” Thomas said.

The distillery is in downtown Helena, about a 30-minute drive away from the family farm. It’s essentially Thomas’ playground. He washes, he pours, he cooks, adding enzymes and turning the starch in the potatoes to sugar.

“The yeast eats that sugar and turns it into an alcohol,” Williams said while walking us through the process of making the alcohol without giving away the secret recipe.

“It’s family. This is something that I’m building for myself. It’s not just me. It’s something I’m building for my kids, my kid’s kids and the rest of the family,” Thomas said.

But the family operation doesn’t stop there. Co-owner and wife of Harvey, Donna, is the chief brand officer for the business.

“I’m not sure if I even realized what the possibilities were with the end product would be. So yes, I’m very proud of Harvey,” Donna said.

Donna also helps her son Thomas add drinks to their tasting room menu, using their sweet potato vodka of course. A multi-generational family planting roots not only on the farm, but in downtown Helena.

"Cherry Street used to be a very exciting place, so we want to help get it back to bringing the community out,” Donna said.

From knowing nothing about making vodka or running a distillery, the family now makes 15 cases of 12 bottles of vodka a week all surrounded by the people they call family. Donna said her other son will be moving back to Arkansas to help Thomas with the distillery as well.

Their daughter is in the Navy in Charleston, South Carolina and when her time is up, she’s thinking about joining the family business as well.

“We are hoping by building our business it will stimulate more growth and show people the possibilities that say if you can do it, I can do it too,” Donna said.

She hopes downtown Helena will attract other businesses to the area now and make it a happening city.

The family hopes to expand where they offer the vodka. Right now, you can only try and buy their vodka from their distillery in Helena which is only open on the weekends. Their tall cotton gin will be coming out this month and their delta blues bourbon should be released in the coming months.