One of the newest craft distilleries in Arkansas is 60 days or so from producing spirits in downtown Helena-West Helena.
“We’re hoping to be test-run capable in late October,” said Harvey Williams Jr., president of Delta Dirt Distillery.
In addition to launching a startup venture, the $1 million development is bringing life to a vacant building in the city’s Cherry Street Historic District and restoring another piece of the once-thriving commercial center.
“It’s a big deal,” said John Edwards, lead economic developer for Phillips County. “This is likely the largest single private investment on Cherry Street this decade. This is the first project of its type that we’ve ever had.”
Owned by Williams and his wife, Donna, Delta Dirt represents a crossroads project where manufacturing, agriculture, tourism and retail meet. The production of distilled spirits made with local crops will be the draw for visitors to tour the business and buy something to wet their whistles.
“They’ve been so busy making the dream a reality I don’t know if they’ve had time to reflect on what all they’re tying together,” Edwards said.
Once construction is complete, perfecting vodka and gin recipes will be the first order of business for the family enterprise.
“That will allow us to get product into the bottle and to market,” Williams said. “You have to pay your bills, and for the first years, you do it with vodka and gin. Whiskey maturing takes time.”
Barreling whiskey to age and developing cordials and flavored vodka are planned to begin next year. On the drawing board are a Mississippi mud pie liqueur and a cherry vodka dubbed — what else? — Cherry Street Vodka.
Williams appreciates the camaraderie of the craft distiller community and people like Phil Brandon, who were willing to share advice and know-how to help his Delta Dirt effort.
“I think it’s great,” said Brandon, founder of Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock. “The more the merrier. I’m looking forward to see what they do.”
Delta Dirt vodka will feature a blend of sweet potatoes and corn, a combination that captured Williams’ imagination nearly four years ago. “I wanted to do something unique,” he said.
The sex appeal of domestic craft spirits continues to grow. One market forecast calls for sales nationally to exceed $20 billion by 2023, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of more than 32% during 2018-23.
In 2016, Williams returned to Arkansas as the plant manager for the Shearer’s Foods snack food facility in Newport. The distillery venture is an extension of his 27-year career in the food processing industry that also plays off his farming background.
The Williams family owns 200 acres split between northern Phillips County and southern Lee County and farms another 400 acres on leased ground.
The Delta Dirt name pays homage to his family’s farming heritage and the intended source for the distillery’s foundational ingredients: corn, wheat, rye and sweet potatoes. Wheat and a trial planting of rye for whiskey production will be harvested in the spring.
“The only thing we’ve never grown before as a commodity crop is rye,” Williams said. “We have grown it as a cover crop. My brother will be starting to cut corn in two weeks. We have sweet potatoes that we will be harvesting in October.”
It was talk of tubers nearly four years ago that gave rise to the distillery. Williams traces the idea back to the aftermath of the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit in Atlanta in October 2015.
The spark came during a conversation with his brother, Kennard, about what caught his eye at the expo related to the family’s interest in sweet potatoes.
“He was excited about pies and turnovers, baked goods from further processed sweet potatoes,” Williams said. “He also mentioned seeing a booth with sweet potato vodka, and I said, ‘Whoa, back up; let’s talk about that. We can really do something different with that.’”
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Though the notion of starting a distillery to tie in with the family farm was captivating, Williams admits it took a while for him to take the plunge and commit to making the business happen. His wife was ready to make the entrepreneurial leap much sooner.
“He was standing on the diving board, and I pushed him off,” Donna Williams said.
“She’s been with me every step of the way,” her husband said.
Williams has continued to work at the Shearer’s plant while orchestrating the launch of Delta Dirt, where his wife and their son, Thomas, will play important roles running the day-to-day business.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in May 2018, Thomas Williams discussed career options with his dad.
“We had a long talk about what I was wanting to do,” he said. “I enjoyed chemistry and my science classes. And helping get the distillery project off the ground, I’ve kind of fallen in love with it.”
Thomas Williams attended Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky, to learn more about the art of distilling spirits to prepare him for overseeing Delta Dirt production.
Donna Williams will supervise the tasting room with a full-service bar out front where visitors can sample Delta Dirt wares and view the distillery action through a glass wall behind the counter.
“She’s not a mixologist, but she’ll be coming up with some cocktails, so people can have a good experience tasting our products,” Harvey Williams said.
“We’ll be honing the recipes,” she said.
The initial target date for opening was envisioned to coincide with Helena’s biggest crowd-drawing event: the King Biscuit Blues Festival, Oct. 10-12.
“Optimistically, we hoped to be open for the Blues Festival, but that’s not going to happen,” he said. “We are still shooting for 2019, but we’re not sure when.”
“That means by Dec. 31, right?” Donna Williams chimed in. “So we’ll have a New Year’s Eve party.”
The final glasswork and new awning are on the way to complete the finishing touches on the distillery’s storefront exterior at 430 Cherry St., two blocks from the Mississippi River levee.
A website is under development and a future array of solar panels is under consideration. The to-do list is shortening every day, but some important items still remain.
“The biggest is getting federal label approval for the bottles,” Harvey Williams said. “On the construction side is finishing out the building: floors, doors and walls and hooking up the equipment.
“All of the processing equipment has been delivered. The final pieces are the bottling equipment. It hasn’t arrived yet but should be here in September.”
The city will be extending a water main 50 feet in the alley to provide the code-required hookup for the new fire sprinkler system. The building’s wooden roof required doubling the budget for the overhead sprinklers.
A more welcome discovery was the uncovering of two serviceable skylights that provide natural lighting for the distillery room and the tasting room. “That was a good surprise,” Williams said.
The location is remembered as the former home of a succession of businesses that included Joe’s Super Market, Western Auto and a paint store.
The Delta Dirt property encompasses neighboring space at 428 Cherry St. that once served as the first location of the S. Elardo Men’s Store while 426 Cherry housed Hudson’s Insurance followed by Miss Pauline’s children’s store.
The combined 426-428 Cherry location was last occupied by Grannydee’s, which served up homestyle cooking.
The return of a restaurant is among the possibilities, but for now, the former Grannydee’s space will remain dormant while the Williams family focuses on the distillery.
Incorporated in August 2017, Delta Dirt has its distilled spirits permit from the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau, an arm of the U.S. Treasury. State licensing from the Alcohol Beverage Control Division is expected to follow a final inspection in the next few weeks.