The awakening of spirits
Design by Laci Thompson
The last 10 months have spun around Churchill Vineyards like an F-5 tornado.
First, one of Nevada’s few estate vineyards debuted its brandy in early November, and on Tuesday, the kickoff to its vodka production opened another chapter for vintner and distiller Colby Frey.
Like proud parents, Colby, along with his wife, Ashley, showed a small group of people their new distillery operations and the process to make vodka, gin and bourbon whiskey from start to finish under the name of Frey Ranch Estate Distillery. The presentation consisted of Colby and Ashley Frey throwing grain into about 5,000 gallons of fermenting mash or what Colby Frey says is a thick porridge of grains with oatmeal consistency used for the making of alcohol.
Vodka, which Frey said is the easiest to distill, will be ready for their open house to roll out bottles on Oct. 11. Colby Frey then guided his guests on the maiden voyage of the newly built distillery.
“We’ve been distilling since 2006, experimenting with small amounts and getting the recipes down,” he explained, standing in front of the double wooden doors leading into the still house and guarded by two rocking chairs on each side.
“We began distilling some brandy in 2006, but we took 6,000 gallons of wine six years ago and distilled the grapes into brandy and waited until Nov. 4 for a tasting. It aged a true five years,” Frey added.
By expanding their operation, the Freys constructed four small silos — each able to hold 60 tons — to store corn, wheat, barley and rye, all ingredients needed for one of three spirits. It is Frey’s goal to grow everything at the ranch in order to become an estate distillery.
Natalie Parrish, executive director of the Fallon Chamber of Commerce, said she was impressed with the Frey’s venture.
“Their innovative business model is what all businesses in Fallon should be doing,” she said. “They found a solution to the water problem.”
Parrish said Churchill Vineyards and now the distillery both do well for other businesses in showing how to succeed from start to finish.
“We make our own mash,” Colby Frey explained, outlining the process in steps. “After the alcohol is removed, the by-products eventually go to the cows, and they produce the manure. Farmers then spread the manure on their fields … and the process starts over.”
Frey also pointed out that any leftover mash by-product is sold to dairies as food for milk-producing cows.
The masher cooker, he said, heats grains up to 200 degrees. The starch from the grain turns into sugar, yeast turns the sugar into alcohol and then the distillation extracts alcohol or spirits from the mash.
The Freys wanted a separate building from the wine distillery. He said construction workers stood up a pre-engineered building onto the middle of the foundation in January, and his father and he did as much of the plumbing and wiring as they could. They enlisted the help of Hammond Construction and MSE Welding to do the rest.
“Where the distillery is used to be a horse corral,” Frey said.
On the south end of the building is a tasting room, and in the middle are three stills, one a tall, copper still made by a company in Louisville that will be used for bourbon. The other stainless steel stills will be used for gin and vodka. Pointing to the copper still, Frey said the pieces, which are plumbed together, work efficiency and lead to an easier operation.
“We designed and changed it numerous times throughout the process,”he said.
The tanks upstairs, which a Mound House, Nev., company built, are being used for all three spirits. Each tank can produce 500 gallons of liquor or 2,500 bottles.
Progressing from a vintner to a distiller has been a labor of love for the 30-year-old Frey. He and his father began an estate winery in 2001 and produced a variety of white wines. There was also another reason for growing grapes. They consume only 10 percent of the water that is used for other crops.
Assemblyman Tom Grady, a proponent of locally owned wineries and distilleries, said these projects help the agriculture industry in Nevada.
“Having a tough time with water, many farmers are changing to different methods, and this is a good example,” Grady said. “Certain grapes have been known to grow in areas like this and take advantage of the climate and available water.”
Frey said Grady helped prospective vintners and distillers through his legislation that makes it easier for them to obtain the required permits.
With the expansion of the vineyard’s operation, Frey said he has added one full-time employee — for a total of six — to the operation. Instead of laying off employees after the summer growing season, Frey said he can keep them throughout the winter distilling spirits.
Also, by using Southern Wine and Spirits Distributors, Frey said he will be able to distribute their products to a wider range of customers.