Spirits

Texas distillery making vodka from black-eyed peas, but is it vodka?

 (iStock)

A former farmer from Muleshoe, Texas, got so fed up with his job that he decided to put his knowledge of black-eyed peas to an entirely different use: making pea vodka. 

Trey Nickels is now the master distiller at the Black Eyed Distillery Co., which claims to be the world's only producer of vodka made with black-eyed peas. And as of Saturday, visitors to the Fort Worth area can try Nickels’ creation at his company’s newly-opened tasting room.

Nickels originally came up with the concept for BLK EYE Vodka during a brainstorming session with his brother. Their family farm in Muleshoe, Texas, was flailing due to drought and competition, leaving Nickels scrambling for a solution.

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“Late at night, I was sitting there thinking, ‘What can we do with all these beans?’” Nickels told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2014. “My brother said, ‘Let’s make beer out of it.’ And I said, ‘Let’s make vodka.’”

Nickels eventually sold his stake in the farm and headed for Fort Worth to pursue his idea. Together with his retired mother Deborah, he set up shop inside a Fort Worth firehouse and began fermenting and experimenting with black-eyed peas.

“We knew black-eyed peas were loaded with the starch necessary to make the fermented mash that can be distilled into liquor,” Nickels said in a press release. “We just needed to prove it.”

Nickels reportedly teamed up with a consultant who helped research the process of turning peas into potable vodka, and the distillery — then known as TreyMark Black Eyed Vodka — began churning out its signature liquor in 2014.

After a brief hiatus in 2016, TreyMark took on investors, and the product was rebranded as BLK EYE Vodka.

The company still operates out of the Fort Worth firehouse, which opened to the public on Saturday. There’s also a brand-new tasting room for visitors to sample BLK EYE Vodka cocktails.

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But does vodka from peas actually taste, like, well vodka? Nickels says the peas produce “a neutral flavor that’s also ideal for mixing,” although a taster from the Forth Worth Star-Telegram claims it has a hint of vanilla with a slightly nutty flavor, reminiscent of sake.

Also, by EU standards, what Nickels is distilling isn’t technically vodka. In 2008, the European Parliament decided that traditional "vodka" needed to be made from grain or potatoes. (Formerly, it simply referred to "a spirit drink produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin.”) And under the new regulations, anything else calling itself “vodka” needed to list its main ingredient on the bottle, which is why vodkas like Ciroc — distilled in France from grapes — say exactly that on the label.

America, however, has no such regulation concerning the materials used to produce vodka.

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, vodkas are “spirits distilled from any material at or above 95 percent alcohol by volume (190 proof), and if bottled, bottled at not less than 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof).”

They also have stipulations for flavored vodkas, and how those vodkas presents their flavorings on the bottle.