Everything you need to know about the origins of East Arkansas’s newest distillery is summed up in the name: Delta Dirt. In two simple words, the moniker tells a story – past present and future of a family-run enterprise, generations in the making.
“There’s a complex story there,” said Harvey Williams who co-founded the business with his wife Donna. “I can tell you there’s some rich history down there.”
Harvey grew up in the nearby rural reaches outside of Helena, the son of a vegetable farmer. He’d spend 20 years away from his home state, working in the food industry. His career brought him back about six years ago, along with a hankering to do something in the family business to perhaps one day replace working for someone else.
“I wanted to do something with our farm operation, I just didn’t necessarily want to farm,” he said. “My brother and my dad had gone to a vegetable growers’ convention over in North Carolina and they came back with all these ideas. We had the row crops, corn, wheat, soy beans. But they came back with all these ideas about sweet potatoes and how they use sweet potatoes in North Carolina where they grow a fair amount.”
“There was some innovation over there and they said there was one food in the convention that was sweet potato vodka and that got my attention. I wanted to hone in they really are doing that.”
Harvey and Donna started their research on the industry, a journey that took them to craft distillery conventions and other sources for information. They weighed their options, including the considerable start-up costs, and the more they looked at it the more they wanted to do it.
Two major hurdles, however, were operational expertise and location.
“When the concept was thought up, our son Thomas was still in college,” Williams said. “He wasn’t a part of it. He graduated the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and he was going to go on to pursue the medical profession. He’s got a kinesiology degree.”
“I had ordered the distillery equipment from a company up in Canada and I asked him to go up there with me to take commission of this and kind of look at this equipment before they actually ship. He went up there with me and started getting an interest in this thing.”
“I asked him, ‘Would you be interested in going to distillery school and helping your mom and I out on this for a couple years or so?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ So, we sent him to distillery school up in Kentucky and that was his introduction to the distilling business.”
Delta Dirt had its head distiller, but it still didn’t have a home. Williams had originally envisioned building in rural Phillips County, but scrapped that idea on the basis it wouldn’t in and of itself draw enough customers.
“The second option was downtown Helena’s historic district,” he said. “They have the blues festival every single year and it draws in thousands of people. Maybe this would be an ideal place to get exposure for our business and show people in the Delta that there is more to this area than just farming and the pork industry. So that kind of spawned the idea of let’s see if we can find a building and see if we can get things started on Cherry Street.”
Cherry Street held a warm place in William’s memory; as a child his family would come to town and Cherry Street was the center of everything going on. Williams wanted his business to revive the neighborhood, but first he had to sell his family members on it, as the area had not help up as well as Williams’ memory.
“My son and I, the first time I took him down and showed him what I was doing and why I’m doing it here I said, ‘Don’t look at what it is now. Look at what it can be,’” he said. “You drive through there today and it looks deprived of growth and development. But I’m not doing this for where it is today but the potential that it has and the potential that we’re going to bring to it. I hope that it brings other developers that want to grow Helena.”
“There are people who want to come back to Helena but they have to have the courage to say I’m going to invest my dollars here. And hopefully this becomes somewhat of an inspiration for people to do that.”
So far, Delta Dirt Distillery has done everything it needs to show proof of concept. After months of experimentation, the Williamses found the right balance of corn and sweet potatoes to create a vodka with unique characteristics and balance. They went into production, but with COVID-19 putting the brakes on both the renovation of their 6,500-square-foot space and their ability to serve foot traffic, they weren’t able to introduce the product to the public.
By December, Thomas had had enough and took a bold step to nudge the business out of its idling state.
“The week before Christmas we had a product that we said is good and we’re ready to launch and release this to the public. But with COVID there were barriers there,” Harvey said. “Thomas just put it out on the Delta Dirt Distillery’s Facebook page and said, ‘Hey, we have some cases of product that we’re ready to launch.’
“I think we sold out within hours of that release. So, I was excited that he had done that, although we didn’t really have an in-depth conversation about it. But that’s how we ended up launching the first product. And we pretty much have been sold out ever since.”
Williams said working with sweet potatoes doesn’t change the basic process of distilling in any appreciable way, but on a personal level, it makes all the difference in the world. His father, Harvey Sr., has been growing sweet potatoes as part of his diversified operation for decades and Delta Dirt helps ensure that crop has a market.
“I’ve grown sweet potatoes even before I left home,” he said. “My dad was kind of a pioneer in the county growing sweet potatoes. I think we started with 20 or 30 acres of sweet potatoes back then and we were hand-picking them. We grew to where we had equipment that was harvesting those out of the field.”
“I told my dad, ‘You are the official consultant for us to get this business off the ground.’ He has been really helpful and instrumental in guiding us through this entrepreneurial process that we’ve been going through. I give a lot of credit to my dad for one, the encouragement to keep going and doing this. But two, he’s got an entrepreneurial mind.”
Williams said this same kind of multi-generational, multi-faceted support can be replicated on a community-wide level to help lift more entrepreneurs. His fondest hope for the business is less about becoming a worldwide brand than it is to become a community-changing catalyst.
“I think the area is ripe for growth. It’s ripe for people to show that there’s more to the area than what they’ve seen as just a strictly farming community,” he said. “I think the banking and the financial institutions have to figure out how to open up some capital for people to grow in the area. We weren’t able to get any financing from local funding sources, not necessarily because they were bad people, but they didn’t understand this industry and couldn’t really wrap their heads around is this going to make it.”
“And while I know you didn’t ask this question, I want to share this anyway: The area is still basically divided in my opinion, and I think that can improve. I think a business like this can help bring people together in common places to talk and share. This is not a white establishment, it’s not a black establishment. This is an establishment that everybody can learn from and grow and have different ideas about things.”
“My wife and I had open discussions about what kind of identity do we want to have for this business. We want this to be a business that people support and the community supports and people from miles around come down to experience.”
Delta Dirt Distillery
430 Cherry Street