This Fifth-Generation Ranch in Nevada Is Making Some of America’s Best Whiskey
With rye, bourbon, and single-barrel whiskeys, Frey Ranch brings the spirit of the Silver State to life on a 1,500-acre family ranch east of Reno.
Driving from Reno to Fallon is an exercise in decompression. The 70-mile journey takes just over an hour, following the Truckee River and other waterways like loose threads that delicately hold the disparities of Northern Nevada together. After leaving the grit of downtown casinos and hotels behind, the land opens up, the air is fresher, and the rural character of the region takes shape. Fallon is a quiet community, where people grow up together, watching cars speed through the dirt at Rattlesnake Raceway or mingling with livestock at the Churchill County Fairgrounds.
Most tourists in the area gravitate to Lake Tahoe, but if you plan to visit Fallon and see what the town is all about, do it on a Saturday afternoon. That's when Frey Ranch Distillery welcomes the general public for tastings and tours. The homegrown operation produces whiskey made exclusively with grains grown on its own 1,500-acre farm. Everything is done on-site until the booze is bottled, beginning with the crop itself, which is harvested, mashed, distilled, and aged for at least five years in oak barrels.
"Fallon is considered the oasis of Nevada, which happens to be the driest state in the U.S.," says Colby Frey, who co-founded the distillery with wife Ashley. "We are fortunate to have beautiful water that flows from both sides of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Mountains—and we irrigate our crops with the Sierra snowmelt."
Colby is the first generation in his family to distill spirits, but belongs to the fifth generation dedicated to farming this land. His family has been growing crops in the region since 1854—a decade before Nevada was even a state. Over the years, the Freys have raised cattle and grown grass, alfalfa, potatoes, and other vegetables, some of which helped supply the Virginia City gold rush.
The crops evolved over the years and Colby always knew he wanted to continue the family business. He met Ashley while both were attending the University of Nevada, Reno and the pair shared a passion for whiskey. It inspired them to open the distillery and showcase the corn, wheat, barley, and rye now growing on the farm.
Aside from the grains themselves, the main ingredient in their success was patience. The couple locked down a distilling license in 2006 (the first in Nevada since Prohibition), built the distillery in 2013, and let their initial batch of whiskey age five years before releasing the bottles in 2019.
"We waited that full five years because we've never sourced whiskey from anybody else," explains Ashley. "A lot of distilleries will purchase bulk whiskey and put it in their own bottle—and they'll be transparent about it, which is totally fine—but for us, it's about the farm and the grains."
As the couple entered the spirits business, they were surprised to learn a lot of American whiskey—rye especially—is made with grains hauled in from farms as far away as Canada and even Germany. By growing their own crop in the fields surrounding their distillery and family home, the Freys can monitor the health and vitality of the grains on a daily basis.
"We know people care deeply about where their food comes from, which is why we’ve seen a proliferation of farmers markets pop up across the country," says Colby. "Why should spirits be any different?"
While waiting for the first batch to age, the Freys dipped their toes into the spirits business with a limited run of gin and vodka. However, the plan was to always focus on the whiskey, which proved to be an immediate hit when it was unleashed on the market just three years ago. Frey Ranch sold more bourbon in its first month of availability than vodka and gin in the previous four years combined.
"We know people care deeply about where their food comes from.... why should spirits be any different?"
The Frey operation uses a unique dual column and pot distillery, the first of its kind constructed by Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Kentucky. It allows the business to produce a high volume of whiskey while discarding the "heads" and "tails" (industry lingo for alcohol's more toxic components). The "heart" left behind is a pure distillate with a cleaner taste and, as this writer can personally attest, fewer hangovers than what you'll get from most mass-produced whiskey brands.
Frey Ranch sells alcohol-free distillery waste to a neighboring dairy farm as cow feed. Leftover sour liquid is directed into a flood irrigation system, reducing the need for fertilizer. The water is only in contact with the lower part of the plant, not actual grains, preventing issues with mold or mildew. It's a blueprint for sustainability. The packaging for the yeast is the only notable waste.
"People don't understand farmers have been doing common-sense sustainability for a long time," says Russell Wedlake, Frey Ranch's master distiller. "Farmers won't exist if they don't take care of the land."
The farm also continues to grow alfalfa—profitable on its own, yet also important for crop rotation, improving the quality of the dirt and reducing pests like worms and bugs. "We take really good care of our environment, our soil, and our natural resources," adds Colby. "That's bred into who we are."
Each day, the team pulls aside 30-40 barrels from the aging warehouse to taste. Anything that stands out for any reason (like mouthfeel or finish) is saved in reserve or used as part of a single-barrel series. Some valued partners, including bars, restaurants, and shops are invited to pick out their own barrel as an exclusive special edition.
"People don't understand farmers have been doing common-sense sustainability for a long time.... Farmers won't exist if they don't take care of the land."
Otherwise, the on-site tasting room and gift shop is the only place to buy limited-edition recipes. Bottles from a recent high-proof "hazmat barrel" sold out in a day, drawing aficionados from throughout the western United States. Frey Ranch has offered 100% oat and 100% wheat whiskeys in the past and just released a 100% malted corn bourbon (with a golden color and robust flavor) and a "Quad Malt" (66% corn with barley, wheat, and rye—all malted for a sweet smell and complex finish). Both are expected to sell out quickly, so sign up for their e-newsletter The Dirt to receive the latest release information.
Frey Ranch's signature bourbon (a 90-proof blend of corn, rye, barley, and wheat) and bottled-in-bond rye (100% winter cereal rye at 100 proof) is currently available throughout Nevada, California, and soon to come—Arizona. Online orders can be placed in at least 30 states, allowing more than half the country to experience a real taste of Fallon from the ground up.