Texas has a history of quality spirits, from TX Blended Whiskey to Tito’s Handmade Vodka and even Dulce Vida Añejo Tequila, and a couple from San Antonio is aiming to join the ranks of time-tested brands with a vodka of their own.
Lateya and Kyle Smith created 500 Vodka in 2014 after finding the inspiration with the help of a little liquid courage among friends. While relaxing with a few drinks, they mulled over the idea of starting making their own alcohol — and they decided it was worth a shot. From there, the couple set out to create something great in the form of a vodka that they could enjoy and leave a lasting impression on the industry.
“Me and my husband would have patio Fridays with friends to just decompress at the end of the week and kind of all sit around in the backyard and share stories of the week,” she explained. “Everyone would bring different drinks and stuff for us all to try and we started thinking ‘you know, we could come up with something better.’ So our next natural step was obviously to figure what base we wanted to make it out of, because you can make it out of potatoes, you make it from grapes, you can make it from wheat and corn. So we got a bunch of spirits together with different bases and tried them all to see which one was going to fit with what we were trying to do. We took the corn because it has the natural sugar finish so when we decided to do our flavoring we would use less sugar because corn is sweet, and it’s gluten free.”
Once they decided to take the idea from concept to reality, it was time to get down to business. They quickly realized that in order to stand out, they would have to have two things: variety and uniqueness. They took time to develop three options to present to the public: ultra premium neutral, strawberry lime, and coconut pineapple.
“We didn’t want normal flavors that everyone does; you know there’s a pineapple, there’s a berry, there’s a lemon so we decided we were going to go with a combination of flavor, which was the coconut pineapple,” she said. “To kind of round it out, three was a number to have as our flagship to kind of get things out there because it’s easier to break into a market when you have more to offer. So then strawberry lime came about. Everybody likes a nice refreshing strawberry daiquiri, but I always want a nice slushy in the winter time. This gives you the flavor you’re looking for when you're just in the backyard. We decided those are going to be our flagships and we’re going to make it as natural as possible.”
With the pieces falling into place, and friends loving the product, the next step was to put their product to the test. In 2015, 500 Vodka entered the New York International Spirit Competition which hosted more than 35 countries competing in multiple categories and by the end of it, they knew they were on the right path.
“We do have more flavors planned,” she said. “We’re looking into doing a lot with our brand. We’re venturing out into things we don't commonly see people do with vodka. We’re really excited about that. When we entered into the first spirit competition, it was international and it was over 500 different companies and we won a silver medal. We knew we’re on to something you know, it’s pretty huge for two people who have no experience with liquor at all. We just know we like to drink and we know what tastes good. That was the first one we entered, so we concentrated on doing our thing from there and we start branding with that because it was a double-blind competition — they didn’t know who the company was, they didn’t know what the bottle looked like, and it just purely went off votes.”
Since then, the brand has gone on to earn multiple awards, including the coconut pineapple bringing home the silver medal, best aroma, and the Judges Choice Award at the 2018 Veteran Alcoholic Beverage Competition as well as the 500 strawberry lime earning the bronze medal and Most Appealing and Most Mouth awards. Now, with a few years and a few awards under their belt, the Smiths are taking the operation serious.
“It’s more business minded than just people partying and drinking alcohol,” she confessed. “We stress the importance of finding the best quality vodka for the price you're trying to pay. We also stress the responsibility. You have to drink responsibly, so i'm pretty conscientious about that. But we want to stay truthful to what our brand is. We’re not currently running our own distilleries, but we’re able to put out a product that needs to be there.”
For Lateya, the journey may have its ups and downs, but she believes that it will only prove to bring them closer as a couple.
“We’ve been together since we were 14-years-old,” she recalled. “We’ve done school together, and traveled from New York to Texas together so there’s pretty much nothing that we haven’t been able to do and conquer together. Everything we’ve done has always strengthened our relationship because we’ve built everything we have together from the ground up.”
Looking ahead, Lateya aims to continue to build 500 Vodka into a brand that becomes a part of the family for Texans and spirit enthusiasts far and wide.
“I would like to see the brand doing what you see brands do,” she said. “Im hoping for longevity. I grew up in a family where if you walked into a house you knew what your great grandmother was drinking, you knew what your aunt’s favorite drink was. I want 500 Vodka to be that for the next generation coming up. I can see a certain drink and it reminds me of someone because that’s the way I grew up. We just want to be able to give back, to be responsible with how we portray ourselves to our community and also be long standing.”
You can find 500 Vodka on shelves in San Antonio, Austin and Schertz. Click here to find your nearest bottle.
Nick Bailey is a forward thinking journalist with a well-rounded skill set unafraid to take on topics head on. He now resides in Austin, TX and continues to create content on a daily basis.