The plan for William Price Distilling Company was to open by Christmastime in 2020.
Then the world was turned upside down by COVID-19, which also upended the business plan created by William Price co-owners Bryan Clary and Zack Hiller. The former college roommates and rugby teammates already had secured the property at 970 Wakefield Dr. in Garden Oaks, where a transformation was underway to convert the site from a diesel engine mechanic shop to a distillery with a tasting room.
They also had applied for their federal distilling permit shortly before the pandemic reached the United States a couple months into the year. Then came a callout from the federal government, which asked spirits makers across the county to consider producing hand sanitizer, which also contains alcohol and can be manufactured through a similar process.
By the end of April 2020, Clary and Hiller had opened their business but were not making whiskey, gin, vodka and rum.
“Helping people is what we’re all about, helping the community,” Clary said. “If there’s no one around, there’s no one to sell booze to. If there’s no bars, there’s no bars to sell booze to. So we decided to make hand sanitizer.”
It turns out Clary and Hiller were good at doing that, because their product was purchased by Texas grocery giant H-E-B, Sprouts Farmers Market and other retailers that sell hand sanitizer. William Price even secured a government contract to supply their product to Harris County, according to Clary.
That helped William Price build brand awareness, name recognition and a reputation for spreading good will, and so did using its purification system to provide drinking water to victims of Hurricane Laura last August and Winter Storm Uri in February. The company also hired out-of-work bartenders to execute its hand sanitizer operation and used the proceeds to create a foundation that donated money to local bars impacted by the pandemic.
Now William Price is finally doing what it set out to do – making spirits to serve to residents of the Garden Oaks and Oak Forest areas. The distillery had a soft opening in February and is holding an opening party from noon-10 p.m. Saturday, when new rye whiskeys and a coffee liqueur will be available and a Houston pitmaster will be on hand to sell barbecue.
Clary, who named the distillery after his great-great-great-great grandfather, the first member of his family to settle in Texas in the mid-1800s, said William Price has so far gotten a good response from local customers. Its regular tasting room hours are from 4-10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday and noon-8 p.m. Sunday, and the distillery also is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday for bottle purchases.
“We would have much rather there not have been a pandemic,” Hiller said. “Having hand sanitizer and meeting the people we did over the course of the last year I think has put this company in a position we would not have been in otherwise.”
Clary said the relationships they forged with bars and bar employees have helped them to get their products into the broader Houston market. It also has helped the distillery refine the flavors of its spirits, with Poison Girl owner Bryan Wayne and Two Headed Dog owner Lindsay Rae Burleson serving as tasting panelists for William Price.
The Garden Oaks company is not yet making its own liquor from scratch, because Clary said it is waiting on handmade brewing and distilling equipment to be delivered from Scotland. Instead, William Price is purchasing spirits from distributors and then creating its own unique products by adding flavor agents or blending barreled batches together.
Hiller said William Price eventually will make its own spirits, including whiskey, rum, gin and other liquors. He said the distillery also plans to sell beer and wine at some point.
Clary said he and Hiller also want to partner with local artists to display their work in the tasting room on a rotating basis.
“A little bit of something for everyone,” Hiller said.
William Price is no longer making hand sanitizer, mostly because it has plenty in stock. Clary said the company could supply Harris County with about five years’ worth of hand sanitizer before needing to produce any more.
Perhaps Clary and Hiller will end up keeping a few bottles of hand sanitizer as souvenirs of sorts. They could at some point use them to tell friends and family the remarkable story about how they started their business sooner than expected and in a manner they never would have imagined – in the midst of pandemic.
It also would remind them about their ability to adapt and prosper no matter what comes their way.
“We have plenty of space back here as you can obviously see,” Clary while standing in the property’s parking lot. “We have water, we have barbed wire fence, we’ve got booze and hand sanitizer. We’re ready for a zombie apocalypse.”