Distillery Visits

From Grain to Glass: A Visit to Frey Ranch Distillery

Distillery owner Colby Frey in his rye field. Frey Ranch grows several grains on the estate.

About an hour east of Reno, a most exciting craft distillery lies in the sleepy farming town of Fallon, NV:  Frey Ranch Distillery.  Run by husband and wife team Colby & Ashley Frey, the distillery is smack dab in the middle of their large farm estate.  

The Freys have called Nevada home since before it became a state.  In fact, Colby’s great-great-grandfather filed one of the first land claims in the area.  Farming is the family trade.  It’s in their blood.  Multi-generational business history is one of the big pushes for some Kentucky distillers, and it is the same for the Freys when it comes to farming.

The Freys do everything on their estate, from growing grains to bottling.

“It helps, through generations and  through trial and error, to learn the best way to grow grain and other products in the desert of the driest state in the nation,” said Colby Frey.  “Now we have this unique ability to grow the grain in this atmosphere which is totally different than anywhere else in the world.”

Back in 2001, Colby and his father, Charles Frey, Jr., started growing vines and making wine.  He enrolled in several fermentation and wine-making classes, and took the time to practice and experiment.  “What’s neat about being a farmer is you have to know a little bit about a lot of things,” Colby said.  A jack of all trades, so to speak.  

Frey Ranch Distillery is about a hour’s drive from Reno.

Distilling soon followed.  Grappa and brandy were the first spirits distilled at the estate, which makes sense given their wine-making proclivities.  The 50-gallon still used at the time was handmade by Colby, but that would change when they decided to expand their distilling capabilities.  Now, they are rocking custom-made Vendome stills.  Located in Louisville, Vendome Copper & Brassworks is the go-to still maker for a lot of American distillers.  With the new equipment in place, the Freys have the capacity to produce 10,000 cases of distilled spirit a month.

Years later, the first whiskey the Freys distilled and put to rest was bourbon.  That bourbon comes from a four grain mash bill – corn, rye, wheat and barley.  At the moment it’s about two and a half years old, but the Freys made one thing clear:  they will not sell a whiskey younger than four years old.

“Right now it shows extreme potential.  When we try it at four years, if we think it needs more time, we’ll let it age,” Frey explained as we tasted their bourbon.  I have to say, it’s pretty enjoyable at the moment.  Being such a young age, the bourbon is grain forward, but not sharp.  Instead, like the majority of the other whiskies I sampled at the distillery that day, I found it rich and flavorful with lots of vanilla and light caramel.

Colby and Ashley Frey say their bourbon shows “extreme potential.” I’d have to agree.

Only grains grown on Frey Ranch Estate are used in production of their spirits.  Grain-wise, the Freys are growing corn, wheat, rye, barley, and oat on their farm.  That, and the fact that Colby likes to tinker and experiment, allows for the production of other whiskies.  In addition to bourbon, the Freys have distilled a rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, oat whiskey, malted corn whiskey, and malt whiskey.  That last one has a light peating level.  What’s interesting is the peat is made on the estate from decomposed corn stocks.  

In addition to their more traditional bourbon, a unique bourbon is also aging in the warehouse.  For this particular whiskey, the four grains used in their standard bourbon – corn, rye, wheat, and barley – are all malted on-site and used in the mash bill.  A malted bourbon?  I wasn’t sure what to call this whiskey, but it’s just bourbon (thanks for the insight, Chuck).  Compared to their more traditional bourbon, this whiskey is still fairly young and has a long maturation ahead of it.  The whiskey itself was rather interesting.  I mean that in a good way.  It had an earthy quality their standard bourbon didn’t have.

Having sampled their range of whiskies, I found that none had that “green” taste.  You know, that young, brutish, sharp character found in a lot of craft distillery whiskies.  Even though most were still very young, the whiskies had backbone.  That can be attributed to the attention and care in not only in the fermentation and distillation of the spirits, but also to the generations of know-how the Freys have instilled in their farming techniques.

Everything comes from and is done at the estate.  Everything.  Growing grains, malting, fermenting, distilling, maturing, and bottling – everything.  I’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t help but appreciate the conviction with which the Frey family are approaching the distillation of spirits.

“There’s a saying in the wine industry that you gotta like what you make because you might end up drinking it all yourself.  So we want to make sure we like it before we bottle it.  We don’t want to do anything to even remotely sacrifice our reputation for having quality products.”

The distillery trip was entirely paid for by Frey Ranch Distillery.  Thanks to the Freys and Argentum for the wonderfully educational weekend in Reno.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.


Stranahan’s Cask Thief Festival or: Let’s Get Serious About American Single Malt Whiskey

Stranahan’s Master Distiller Rob Dietrich wants the Colorado malt whiskey he and his team distills to be taken as seriously as a single malt Scotch.  Currently, there is no official designation for American Single Malt Whiskey in the TTB, the government bureau who oversees booze in our great country.  Sure, we have bourbon, rye, corn whiskey, grain neutral spirit, etc.,  but no American Single Malt.  Stranahan’s is made from malted barley, Colorado water, and yeast.  There are no additives, flavoring, or coloring added.  It’s all distilled and aged at their Denver distillery.   If that’s not a single malt whiskey, I don’t know what is.  Again, no American Single Malt designation.  Stranahan’s and several other American distilleries making malt whiskey are lobbying for change.

Single malts make up some of the most delicious and treasured whiskies in the world.  Layers of flavors build, forming nuances and complexities absent in other spirits.  That inspired the folks at Stranahan’s to go the malt whiskey route instead of producing a bourbon or rye whiskey.  The standard Stranahan’s expression is bold and full of sweet malt, vanilla and honey, appealing both to malt whisky and American whiskey drinkers who prefer a bolder character.  It’s at least two years old, befitting a “straight whiskey” designation.  But again, no official recognition or definition of American Single Malt Whiskey (I know, I’m starting to sound like a broken record).  Also on shelves is the 4-year-old Diamond Peak, which gives off more dark fruits, darker caramels and more spice than the standard expression.  In addition, every December fans go rabid over the release of Snowflake, a distillery-exclusive offering that explores cask finishing.

In the midst of appealing to the TTB, the folks at Stranahan’s still know how to have fun with their whiskey.  Attending their second annual Cask Thief Festival recently, I saw…rather, tasted, that fun firsthand.  Close to six hundered fans made their way to the festival this past weekend.  The event gave fans a chance to taste rare whiskies straight from the barrel at cask strength. This year featured a selection of six unique casks, as well as a barbecue and live music.  Each featured a departure from their standard house style through different cask finishes, further aging, or in one case, a brand new yeast strain.  I jotted down a few notes while I tasted.

Cask thievery. All samples were taken straight from the barrels with a copper cask thief.

  1. CHERRY MARY – This expression was a 3-year-old Stranahan’s finished in a Montmorency cherry wine barrel for more than year.  The wine is local to Denver, and aged in that cask for four years.  Aromas of vanilla, caramel-dipped cherries, oatmeal and espresso leapt out of the glass.  The entry featured hints of cherry cola, vanilla creme, cloves and some sweet malt.  The long finish left behind sweet red fruit notes.
  2. SHERRY GARCIA – A 2.5-year-old Stranahan’s finished in an Oloroso Sherry cask.  Sherry cask-finishing is nothing new in the whiskey world.  The folks here at Stranahan’s showed restraint with this one.  The secondary sherry cask maturation was evident, but not overdone.  The nose featured hints of dried fruits, plums, banana and caramel, along with a light touch of sherry wine.  Sherry Garcia was quite mild in terms of drinkability.  Taste-wise, we’re talking about raisins, caramelized malts, and vanilla with some sherry and candied orange peel on the back-end.  The finish was nice, with spiced honey, sweet malt and slightly astringent oak.
  3. 4.6 CARAT DIAMOND – Essentially this is a single barrel Diamond Peak.  Hinted at in its name, this whiskey was matured in new American oak casks for 4.6 years.  The nose here was on the yeasty side, suggesting cinnamon bread.  Notes of sweet dark malt and caramel helped contribute to its rich aroma.  The palate was quite delightful.  Hints of grapefruit, brown sugar, figs and a sweet maltiness alongside a touch of oak gave this whiskey a nice balance of flavors.  The finish was full of dark brown sugar, dark fruits and slightly drying oak.
  4. THE HEADSTAND – As Stranahan’s demand grows, the distillery is looking to maximize space to age its barrels.  For this release, the bung was placed on the head instead of the side, meaning this barrel sat vertically instead of horizontally.  This kind of storage means more barrels can fit in the same square footage than ones laying horizontally.  Stranahan’s released this 3.5-year-old whisky aged in a “vertical” barrel to show there’s no change in the way the whiskey ages.  The Headstand was a great example of the Stranahan’s house style.  The nose was malty, with hints of honey, vanilla and candied fruit.  Those notes carried over to the palate, where malt was mingled with orange marmalade, caramel, spice and vanilla.  The finish was longer than the standard Stranahan’s whiskey, featuring honey and some spice.
  5. FRENCH-KISSED – A fantastically rich expression from Stranahan’s.  This one saw Stranahan’s whiskey finished in a cognac cask for 24 months.  The new French oak cask was seasoned for three years and filled with eau de vis for 15-20 years.  On the nose, hints of caramel, vanilla and malt stood up against big fruity, floral notes from the cognac cask.  This whiskey was oily on the palate.  The French oak cognac cask influence showed, as vanilla and cloves seasoned big fruity notes like grapes, apricot, and figs.  There was a bit of malt underneath, along with a bit of raisins, oak and a hint of leather.  The finish featured caramel, grapes, and a touch of spice.  A dessert whiskey if there ever was one.
  6. STRANA-SCOTCH – My favorite of the bunch!  Strana-Scotch traded Stranahan’s traditional yeast with a Scotch yeast.  The whiskey was matured for 3 years in a new American oak barrel with a #3 char.  Black cherries, dried fruits (raisins especially), sweet malt and orange zest filled the nose.  There were dried fruits and toffee on entry, followed by orange zest, white pepper, lemongrass and candied ginger.  The finish was sweet and sour, with candied orange zest, toffee, and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper.  While this expression held the Stranahan’s house style at its core, the use of another yeast gave this whiskey notes normally not found in Stranahan’s.  I’d love to see this get a wide release, even if it’s only a one-off.

Stranahan’s Master Distiller Rob Dietrich discussing the distilling process during a private tour of the distillery.

Alongside some kick ass barbecue and fantastic music, Stranahan’s Cask Thief Festival gave attendees a sneak peak at some of the experimentation going on at the distillery.  I’m a fan of experimentation in the whiskey world, and for the most part these expressions worked.  The level of finesse and skill showcased here should be applauded.  As the distillery grows, I do hope to see more of these releases reaching the hands of fans across the country.

Moreover, I completely back Stranahan’s and other American distilleries pushing for an official designation for an American Single Malt whiskey.  Rumor has it the major pushback is coming from across the pond in Scotland.  If that is the case, I would call it a petty move.  Scotch whisky is still king of single malts, and the handful of American distilleries making single malt whisky are a drop in the bucket and pose no threat to sales.  There are Scotch, Irish and Japanese single malt whiskies, so why don’t we have an American single malt?

A big thanks to Stranahan’s for my invitation to their Cask Thief Festival.  The entire trip was paid for by Stranahan’s, but that did not influence the contents of this article.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Several hogs were roasted using Stranahan’s barrel staves.

Some mood music.

A Visit to the Willett Distillery


After a memorable visit to Heaven Hill in Bardstown this past March, I took the short drive to the Willett Distillery.  It’s literally on the next hill.  This distillery visit was my third in two days, after George Dickel and Heaven Hill.  Okay…technically, it was Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center / warehouse / bottling plant, not their distillery.  Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen and family run the company.  Their story is an interesting one, and can be found in more detail here.  Until very recently, Willett did not have a functioning distillery.  They have been sourcing whiskey from various places, then aging, blending and bottling under various labels their company owns.  It wasn’t until a couple of years ago the distillery was restored and Willett began distilling their own whiskey.  Their first non-sourced whiskey to hit the market was a 2-year old rye whiskey. (more…)