In recent weeks BevX had the opportunity and pleasure to try two exciting craft spirits from Frey Ranch. We were first struck by the very smart and contemporary packaging. Of course the proof is always in the glass so when we discovered that their Gin and Vodka were not just good but first rate we were hooked. I dug into the press material but as usual this only tells part of the story. I had to know how and why this family of dedicated farmers had entered the rough and tumble world of beverage alcohol.
I contacted Frey Ranch’s Colby Frey to see if he were available for an interview. He agreed and I was able to learn the rest of Frey Ranch’s story.
If you haven’t heard of Frey Ranch in Nevada by now, take a moment and lock it in your memory. Established in 2010, Frey Ranch is the real deal creating true craft spirits and best of all, they taste great.
I know, the moniker craft has been thrown about with such regularity and casualness that it nearly has no meaning at all. Couple this with the fact that the spirits industry has had its share of mini-scandals concerning the true craftiness of craft spirits that even the usual observer has become a bit skeptical.
In the game of incense we imagined that our darling craft spirits were crafted by blossoming artisans in small distilleries. Dreams were shattered when it was discovered that some of these brands were indeed careful fictions being made in large factory distilleries without the aid of the lost family recipe. It was the kind of betrayal that sent throbbing pains to your temples.
However, there is cause for hope as craft as we had all imagined it does exist. There is a mantra in the spirits business that simply goes, “grain to bottle.” This describes a distillery who starts the spirit making process with whole grains and malts, mills and mashes them, ferments, distills, ages, and bottles. This is the standard for true craft distilling and thanks to greater transparency we can now separate the spirit makers from the brand makers.
The Frey Ranch is a true craft distillery taking the grain to bottle practice to a new level by growing and harvesting their grains. They have taken a cue from the wine world and have created a rare “Estate” distillery.
The Frey family has been farming in Nevada since 1850 and has been settled on their current farm since 1944. With generations of successful farming under their belt they first ventured into the world of beverage alcohol by launching a winery, Churchill Vineyards (named for Churchill County), in 2006. They had begun to grow grapes in 2001 and after a few years of experimentation they were ready for their first commercial release.
The Frey’s first venture into converting their crops into alcohol beverages was a success. A lot of lessons were learned with the launching of a wine brand. The Frey’s picked up the art and science of fermentation, navigating the labyrinth of government paperwork and regulations, and how to get a wine to market.
They soon discovered that the winery they had built was under-sized and have since undertaken two expansions. Lesson learned – when it was time to build the distillery they opted to “over-build” knowing that it’s easier to add distilling shifts than to add or replace stills and tanks. Smart. Based on what is being made today I suspect the future demand will be quite brisk.
In 2010 they obtained their commercial license and set about building a 4,700 square-foot modern distillery. The distillery features a large, custom-built Vendome still, as well as a 500-gallon pot still. The Freys are typical farmers in the sense that they first look to solve problems themselves and build it rather than out-sourcing. The result is a distillery that looks and works like no other.
This led to one of the very unique features of an American craft distillery, their own malting. After taking a stab at traditional “floor malting” the soon discovered that there was a better way and set about constructing large steeping tanks for the grains along with a one-ton drum for firing the sprouting grains to malt. Of course when you have your own crops, malting experimentation will follow as they are now dabbling in malting corn, as well as the traditional barley. This could change American Whiskey as we now know it.
Eventually the tail was wagging the dog as the farming was now being customized to enhance the distilling. The Freys grow a particular two-row barley and other custom grains that are best suited for making the spirits. While the traditional farmer grows crops with an eye on yields, the Freys sacrifice crop weight in order to harvest the types of grains that will become the best possible spirits.
Presently, Frey Ranch offers Gin and Vodka made with grain from their farm. An Absinthe and a barrel aged Gin, made with different botanicals than their original, are in the works. In addition to these is Whiskey in the form of Bourbon and a 100% Rye Whiskey. Frey Ranch is demonstrating some patience with their Whiskies aiming to have them age a minimum of four years and perhaps longer if it hasn’t reached maturity at that point. This is a refreshing practice as too many small distillers release their Whiskey once it’s transformed from clear to amber.
At present time Frey Ranch is laying down about 700 barrels of Whiskey a year with of course the potential to make more when the demand threatens supplies.