Worn down by drought and dwindling water supplies, Trey Nickels was disheartened about his future as a farmer growing black-eyed peas in Muleshoe.
Tending crops spread across three West Texas counties, Nickels often ended up sleeping in the fields and was running himself ragged trying to keep complex irrigation and agricultural equipment running.
Rising land costs, stiff competition, falling prices and declining consumption of black-eyed peas added to his worries. Throw the stress of a divorce into the equation and Nickels was itching for a change.
“Late at night, I was sitting there thinking, What can we do with all these beans? My brother said, ‘Let’s make beer out of it.’ And I said, ‘Let’s make vodka’,” said Nickels.
Four years later, the pea-sized notion has become TreyMark Black-Eyed Vodka which will soon start pouring out of a 600-gallon copper still inside a historic firehouse south of downtown Fort Worth.
“I started doing some research on it. It was just a wild hair. I wondered if it could be done,” said Nickels, 30.
So he built a homemade still and started experimenting. His buddies didn’t think the raw results were drinkable, but it was high-octane spirits.
It didn’t take long for his mother, 58-year-old Deborah Nickels, who had retired from running the family’s processing facility about 70 miles northwest of Lubbock, to buy into his black-eyed idea.
“It was a no-brainer for me when Trey said let’s do this,” said Deborah Nickels. “I lived in Muleshoe for 46 years, but Trey said it was time for a change.”
To “prove the idea,” the mother-and-son team hooked up with Sherman Owens, a distilling consultant in Shepherdsville, Ky.
Owens came to the same conclusion that got Trey Nickels started — peas are loaded with starch and that’s all you need to make a fermented mash that can be distilled into liquor.
“It’s never been done that I know of,” said Owens, who proved the process using a method developed in China to extract starch from mung beans.
“After that, it’s the same distilling procedure as using corn or potatoes or any other product,” he said.
That’s all the Nickels needed to get rolling. They “pretty much sold everything” to finance the cash-intensive project, Deborah Nickels said.
“I bailed out and sold the farm and got out of it the best I could. I was forced to farm one more year to make up for some losses the year before,” Trey Nickels said. “We’ve both invested a lot of money in this.”
For two years, they scouted for locations in Texas cities before deciding that Fort Worth’s “hometown feel,” was the best fit, Deborah Nickels said.
“This town just fit our history and roots in West Texas,” she said.
They moved here late in 2012 and started hunting for a distillery location.
A site near the Fort Worth Stockyards didn’t pan out, and six months ago they leased the two-story, 5,200-square-foot brick firehouse at 503 Bryan Ave a block east of South Main Street.
The building, built in 1910 after the original firehouse on the site burned down, once housed a 15-man horse-drawn firefighting crew and then a motorized unit until the mid-1960s, said owner Bob Higginbotham, who bought it in 1997 and renovated it to house his audio-visual company.
“It was in terrible condition. It was a brick shell with a roof. The windows were all boarded up, street people had made campfires on the floor and the second floor had caved it,” he said.
The building has had several tenants since 2000 but had been empty for about a year, Higginbotham said.
When Trey Nickels first checked out the building, he thought that with two floors, it wouldn’t accommodate the still’s 22-foot-tall column.
Then he saw the fireman’s pole from the second floor. The still column now extends through the opening. “It worked perfectly,” he said.
Changing the structure’s city permitting from an office building into a vodka facility has been the start-up company’s biggest challenge.
The work should be completed in March and the first bottles to market in April, depending on completion of licensing by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
The Nickels won’t reveal their start-up costs or their black-eyed pea formula.
“You have to have faith in this. One of the struggles is being out all that capital before you can produce anything,” Trey Nickels said.
He says the pea-based product has a unique taste.
“It’s a clean, no-burn vodka with a subtle nut flavor to green tea on the end,” he said. “It’s going to lend itself to mixed drinks.”
Prices will be in the $35 dollar range, which would put it in on the top shelf of premium vodkas.
“The grain is quite a bit more expensive. Corn could yield 18,000 pounds an acre, black eyes do 2,000 pounds an acre at their best,” he said.
The final product will be a true field-to-still family operation, Deborah Nickels said. The peas will come from the fields of Trey’s older brother, Chad, and will be ground into flour at the family’s processing facility in Muleshoe.
The distillery will be able to produce about 670 gallons, or about 3,400 bottles, of 80 proof vodka a week, he said.
The Nickels are still shopping for a distributor. In the meantime, it helps that a new Texas law that went into effect Sept. 1 allows distilleries to sell bottles and drinks directly to the public.
Each month, customers can buy two bottles and distilleries can sell up to 3,000 gallons in individual drinks.
“That will help as we get going. Three-thousand gallons is a lot of vodka,” Trey Nickels said.
The company will initially concentrate on production but the building will eventually be open for sales, tours and events, Deborah Nickels said.
Micro-distilleries are popping up around Texas like mushrooms.
There are 56 distilleries now licensed with the TABC. That’s up from 49 since October and more than double the 25 in 2011.
And the critics have liked what Texas stills are cooking.
Balcones Distilling in Waco has won more awards than most Olympic teams and Firestone & Robertson’s TX Whiskey was named “Best American Craft Whiskey” in 2013.
Owens, the industry consultant who will be assisting the Nickels while they perfect the process, isn’t surprised by the explosion in micro distilling. He has helped 24 get going in the last year.
Consumers are increasingly interested in local hand-made products, Owens said.
“People have the perception that if it’s craft-made, there is more care put into it than something coming from the major distillers which are like big factories,” he said.
Many of the micro distilleries are turning out vodka, but Owens believes black-eyed peas will give TreyMark Vodka Distillery a unique marketing niche.
“Vodka is not tough to make, the tough part is getting sales. It’s more of a marketing thing than anything else,” he said.
“They are going to succeed. I know of only one micro distiller that has failed. Most of the time, if they can do the marketing, they can make a fairly good living,” he said.
Black-eyes are also known as cow peas and it’s fitting that cow pea vodka would originate in Cowtown. The peas are eaten for luck on New Year’s Day, and that tradition could also translate into a propitious pour on a day often celebrated with adult beverages, Deborah Nickels said.
“It’s all coming together perfectly. It was an effort of faith that we could overcome every roadblock. When things started falling in place here, we knew we had it. We have confidence in our product.”