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5 Star Stories: The legacy of Delta Dirt Distillery

Published: May. 25, 2022 at 9:42 AM CDT
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HELENA, Ark. (WMC) - You’ve heard of “farm to table” but, how about “farm to spirits?” This 5 Star Story shows you how an Arkansas family’s history of triumph over circumstance now allows them to use their farm to “Raise Spirits in the Delta” -- one bottle at a time.

Deep in the Arkansas Delta, on a dirt road about 30 miles from Helena, sits the Williams family farm. Small but mighty, it’s tilled and farmed by a fourth generation of the Williams family, producing enough grains and vegetables to sell to distributors.

“Yeah, my...great grandfather was a farmer in this county for his whole life,” said Harvey Williams.”But, my granddad, who also sharecropped the land until he was able to buy it and he bought our land, 86 acres, in 1949.”

It was a smart and unusual move by “Daddy D” as Harvey called him, explaining further, “Sharecropping’s not -- it’s not a system that’s really designed for you to get out of, but he was able to find out how much he owed for his land and at the end of the year he got his cotton, proceeds from his cotton, and rhe rest of the story is he took his cotton that year to a different ginner and got that day what he was really deserving for hs cotton and was able to make enough money to pay off the land that year.”

It was also very dangerous.

Just a few years earlier, in 1919 in the same Phillips County where the Williams’ farm sits, hundreds of Black sharecroppers were killed in the Elaine Massacrewhen when they tried to organize for fair pay and rights.

The Williams Family also learned that it took more than just cotton money to buy the farm. The family recently learned that their grandfather also made and sold moonshine.

According to Harvey, one day his late father brought out a big brown earthen jug and said, “This is the last thing we have of your grandad doing moonshine. So, I called my Aunt to see if she could verify this story and she said, ‘Yeah, he did but after he bought the farm, he never did moonshine again.’”

Harvey, his wife and children knew nothing about that when they moved back to Arkansas and opened Delta Dirt Distillery in Helena in 2021.

Having grown up in the area, Harvey and his wife remembered a time when Cherry Street in Helena was the place to be, which is where they decided to put their distillery.

“So we start looking on Cherry Street to find the right location and we found this corner property and it was in pretty tough shape,” he recalled. “We had a lot of renovation work to do and we just started going to work in renovating this place to make it a craft distillery.”

And, after months of intensive work, much of it completed by family members, the Williams turned the once rundown building on the National Register of Historic Places into a beautiful working distillery and tasting room complete with a massive bar and sitting area.

“So people can come in and just really have a nice time and date night if you will right here in Helena,” said Harvey.

The distillery’s first “thirsty little secret” was a sweet potato vodka made from corn and sweet potatoes fresh off the farm.

“And I got pretty intrigued about the idea of being able to use our sweet potatoes to make a vodka,” explained Harvey.

All of those potatoes and corn are cooked, mashed and fermented on the premises in the glass-enclosed distillery which can be seen from the Tasting Room. Harvey’s 26-year-old son Thomas, a college and distilling school graduate, helps come up with recipes and is responsible for all the distilling.

“We wanted something that was smooth and went down easy because everyone has that initial rubbing alcohol taste of vodka,” said Thomas. “We didn’t wanna have something that wasn’t palatable.”

And it seems that the Delta Dirt Sweet Blend Vodka is indeed, at least palatable since it won Double Gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

“I think there were 187 entrants this year and there’s only one award higher than that double gold which is platinum,” said Harvey. “But, you have to get double gold three years to get that. So we felt really good winning that.”

Delta Dirt has now added to its inventory with a Tall Cotton Gin, a Delta Blue Bourbon and, coming in 2023, a Classified Whiskey. Delta Dirt’s liquors are sold in Arkansas and Mississippi, right now, with plans to get them in stores throughout more states in the months and years to come.

Eldest son, Donavan, hopes his international experiences and contacts can help spread Delta Dirt even further.

“I always saw this place as a global brand and one day we certainly will but, of course, we need to build to that,” he said.

Both Harvey and his high school sweetheart, co-founder and wife Donna, also dream that the distillery can help jumpstart a revival and make the Arkansas Delta town and the fertile farmland surrounding it a destination.

”So, you know, we want to see, at some point down here we have hair salons, nail salons, restaurants, shops, hotels, you know. So we want to have a version of Beale Street‚ but we want it to be on Cherry Street,” said Donna.

“There’s a lot to be proud of in the Delta there really is,” expressed Harvey. “I know it’s a farming community, it’s always gonna be a farming community. But I think this distillery shows that there’s more that can be done than people give their imagination credit for.”

And maybe the Delta Dirt Distillery can help sustain the family farm once again, just as the Williams’ grandfather, “Daddy D,” was able to do with his moonshine and cotton.

The Delta Dirt Distillery also donates a portion of its sales “to local education and community initiatives,” which to the Williams family, is what “Raising Spirits in the Delta” is really all about.

The Tasting Room is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings at 430 Cherry Street in Helena, Arkansas.

For more information about the distillery or where you can buy the products, visit deltadirtdistillery.com.

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