A truly unique kind of vodka – one that’s growing quickly in popularity – makes its way through the distilling process flanked by Viega products along the way.
At Black Eyed Distilling Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, owners Todd Gregory and Scott Billings make BLK EYE Vodka. It’s as it sounds, a specialty vodka made with black-eyed peas and corn, sourced completely from Texas. It was discovered that black-eyed peas possess the starch needed to make fermented mash and yield a higher quality alcohol, leading to an ultra-premium finish.
To make matters more exciting for Gregory and Billings, they’re just a year into the business and the distillery is already winning awards. They purchased the distillery from another owner but knew that upon taking over, there were a lot of things in the building that needed to be retrofitted.
The basics of the plumbing were in place, but they had to replace a chiller, a boiler and add a blending tank with a cooling jacket. They also needed a new air compressor and air lines.
Connecting with Viega
Both Gregory and Billings had plumbing experience, so they planned to do much of the work themselves, which led Gregory to ask a contractor he knew, Randy Pair of O’Grady Plumbing, if he had a pipe threader they could borrow. Pair told him he had a “better deal” and put him in touch with Viega Regional Manager Jaime Gomez.
“He showed us the fittings and had a loaner set of tools we could use to retrofit. We started using Viega and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible!’” Gregory said. “It allowed us to do the retrofitting ourselves as we got the pipe in. We would install and build what we needed to do to fit the particular equipment and it was quick and easy to use the tools.”
Gregory and Billings called on Pair now and then to help advise or lend a hand, making sure they were using the right types of fittings for all the different lines they were running, including ProPress for chilled water, steam, water and compressed air lines in the distillery. They also used MegaPressG for natural gas lines.
“I pointed them in the direction of Viega because I knew it would be the best choice for them,” Pair said. “Threading didn’t make any sense for them. Press is a lot cleaner and then they wouldn’t be putting oil in the system. It was just all around a better process for them.”
The men bought the company in August of 2016 and worked on the equipment for the remainder of the year. Gomez, Pair and Morrison Supply provided advice and help. Then Gregory and Billings had everything inspected and were ready to roll in the new year.
The past and the future
Neither Gregory nor Billings had a history of distilling or really even had it on their radars. Gregory, a retired banker, and Billings, a CPA and CFO at a private equity firm were looking for something new to do to keep busy. A friend of Gregory’s suggested they look at the then-closed distillery.
“I didn’t know that I wanted to be in the distilling business,” he said. “But this got me back to my roots a little bit. I grew up shelling a lot of black-eyed peas as a kid, so bringing the grains in off the farms, there was that tie there. I just knew I wanted to buy a business but didn’t know what kind. Now we’re having so much fun with it.”
Black Eyed Distilling is located in a historic firehouse in Fort Worth, built in 1911, retrofitted for their needs. Production happens downstairs and there is a tasting room and offices upstairs. There is also a full bar where visitors can have a drink, whether it’s the BLK EYE Vodka or a sorghum whiskey they also make in very small batches that can only be purchased at the distillery itself.
Billings is the distiller and the batches of vodka he’s turning out are quickly gaining popularity and notoriety. In 2017, Black Eyed Distilling snagged several awards including the Best Traditional Vodka and a Double Gold Medal award at the 2017 Global Spirit Awards, Best Domestic Vodka – Gold Medal at the 2017 The Fifty Best Awards, a Silver Medal from the 2017 San Diego Spirits Festival and a Silver Medal at the 2017 New York World Wine and Spirits Competition.
With things going so well, Gregory and Billings know that they will unfortunately outgrow the picturesque firehouse location sooner than later, so they’re already planning for the future. They recently penned a contract for a piece of land a few miles from the current location where they plan to build an all-new distillery, for which they intend to use Viega systems.
“If Randy had loaned me that pipe threader, we might still be working on it!” Gregory said laughing. “I don’t even know how to describe Viega. It was amazing for us.”