Vodka: Black-eyed pea venture set for south side

Scott Nishimura

Vodka from black-eyed peas? It was late one night in Muleshoe several years ago when Trey Nickels came up with the idea. Nickels’ family had been in the black-eyed pea business for years, but it’s hotly competitive, consumption was waning, and they’d been hunting for another use for the crop. Why not vodka? Black-eyeds are starchy; starches can be distilled into alcohol, Nickels knew.

Fast forward, and Nickels and his mom and partner, Deborah Nickels, say they’re about a month from beginning production of the new TreyMark Black-Eyed Vodka in Fort Worth’s historic Firehouse No. 5 – the two-story brick home of what used to be a 15-man horse-drawn firefighting unit at 503 Bryan Ave. on the Near South Side. “The goal is to have bottles on the shelf by March,” Nickels said.

They say the walk-in aspect of the distillery will open later in the spring. The distillery will produce vodka largely for wholesale distribution, but consumers will be able to walk into the station, buy bottles, enjoy tastings, buy logo merchandise, take tours and rent the place for special events. The Nickelses envision scheduling bands, as is done by the nearby Rahr & Sons Brewing Co. and the Martin House Brewing Co. on the Trinity River east of downtown. And look out for the Nickelses’ “Marpeani” recipes. That’s the distilled version. The path the Nickelses took to bringing their brand of fire to Fort Worth was more protracted. The Nickelses leased the building four months ago. On Jan. 29, they secured a city change-of-use permit for the building. That started what they believe will be a month-long approval process by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and they expect production will begin in March.

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The Nickels family had been in farming for years. Deborah Nickels contracted with farmers to produce black-eyed peas. Trey Nickels had his own operations. But the market for black-eyed peas is difficult. Competition from farmers in California and South America has cut into Texas farmers’ sales. And people are eating fewer black-eyed peas these days. “We can’t keep a stable market,” Deborah Nickels, 58, said. Trey Nickels, 30, says he came up with the vodka idea after spending a day on the combine and sitting around with his brother, Guy, who is also a producer. “I got to playing with it, seeing if it could be done,” Trey Nickels said. “I made some. It wasn’t the best stuff. It was pretty bad.” “But he proved it could be done,” his mother interjected. The two contracted with a master distiller and engineer in Kentucky to make a small batch of vodka from black-eyed peas, proving the idea over several months. They chose the firehouse and Fort Worth for its “spirit” after scouting San Antonio, Austin and Dallas over two years, Trey Nickels said. They originally pursued a site on the old North Side, but that didn’t work out. The 5,200-square-foot, 1910 firehouse had special appeal. Trey Nickels is a volunteer firefighter, and his father was a rural fire chief. Through research, the Nickelses learned the names of the first 15 firefighters who worked at the station and put their names up on small plates.

Owner Bob Higginbotham, who owns an audio-visual company, bought the run-down building for less than $100,000 in 1997 and renovated it, but was looking for a tenant. Higginbotham remembers that the second-floor windows were boarded up when he bought it, and the interior walls were “pitch black” from fires homeless people had been burning to stay warm. “We [renovated] this with entertainment in mind,” Higginbotham said. “We pre-wired for stage lighting and bands out back.” The Nickelses brought in Fran McCarthy, who ran Higginbotham’s original restoration and who manages the property, to serve as project manager. The Nickelses installed a 22-foot copper and stainless still that they imported from China, using the hole from the fire station’s old fire pole for the flue. Besides vodka, the still also is equipped to produce whiskey, in case that market emerges, Trey Nickels said. They also brought in several fermentation tanks. The Nickeles are keeping the numbers on their investment close to the vest. Trey Nickels declined to say even how much bean goes into a gallon of his spirits. Their investment is heavy on cash, Deborah Nickels said.

“We’ve sold things; we’ve sacrificed,” she said. “Before you can get a permit, all the investments have to be made up front.” The production process at least will be quick. The peas will come in ground up from West Texas. The distillery will be able to produce 670 gallons of 80 proof vodka per week, Trey Nickels said. “We can probably produce right around 3,400 bottles a week, and we’d like to do it,” he said. “But we’ve got to build into the market.” Selling retail from the firehouse, the distillery will be allowed to sell a total of 3,000 gallons per year, and up to two bottles per month per consumer, Trey Nickels said. All remaining production will have to go through distributors. Tasters have suggested the vodka has a “green tea taste” and “subtle nut flavor,” he said. TreyMark will be the initial label, and a Nickel Plated No. 5 will follow, the Nickelses said. Fifths will likely sell for about $35 in stores and at the distillery, Trey Nickels said. The Nickelses want to build on the increasing popularity of the Near South Side and the emerging South Main Village. Trey Nickels is mulling the idea of promoting Near South Side “bourbon tours” that include visits to TreyMark and Rahr. Their next goal after getting production started: a continuously operating still and double the capacity. “Obviously, we have to improve the market,” Deborah Nickels said.