Whiskey Business: Local Distillers Share the Inside Scoop on their Spirits
Jun 09, 2019 10:15PM
● By Natasha Bourlin
Photo by Calvert Photography
Creating a profession from your passion is something nearly everyone strives for. Locally, in the Reno-Tahoe area, whiskey distillers have turned passion projects into thriving businesses, all with their own spin on their spirits. Ultimately, they can credit this opportunity to America’s founding fathers, pioneers, miners and cowboys.
PIONEERS OF AMERICAN WHISKEY
While whiskey’s invention is credited to Irish monks during medieval times, colonist George Thorpe was the first recorded distiller of whiskey in what’s now the U.S. In around 1620, he discovered he could distill mashed Indian corn. But it took another 100 years before distilling became prevalent.
Crafting whiskeys on the family farm was commonplace in the 1700s. It became such a beloved spirit that when Alexander Hamilton levied a tax on the domestically produced drink, it incited the Whiskey Rebellion. Thousands of “Whiskey Boys” rampaged through the colonies, punishing tax collectors brutally before George Washington let the militia loose. Likely a whiskey lover himself, as he started the first domestic commercial distillery in 1797, Washington then pardoned anyone captured and sentenced to death.
Fast forward to the Old West. Cowboys have long been lovers of whiskey. Early American traders used the potent potion to exchange goods with the Native Americans. The term “firewater” likely was derived from proving their whiskey’s potency to the indigenous peoples by pouring it over a fire. If it flamed up, they knew the alcohol content was high.
In 1822, the first saloon was opened near where Colorado, Wyoming and Utah met, in Brown’s Hole. Cowboys, miners, pioneers and soldiers frequented these often-raucous establishments. Prohibition put a damper on the whiskey biz for a while, but it’s now back in full force.
As we celebrate the Reno Rodeo’s centennial, it’s clear—well, sometimes amber —that whiskey is more popular with today’s cowboys and cowgirls than ever.
One hundred years is a landmark for others this year also. A relatively new distillery, Old Trestle, just opened the first whiskey distilled and bottled in the mountain town in 100 years for a special event. Other whiskeys they’ve crafted are still aging in oak, but based on the quality and smooth, sweet notes of this first example, their other beverages will soon be widespread once bottled.
Locally crafted libations run over the hill from there. Rustic Verdi Local Distillery claims to be the smallest legal distillery in the world at just 840 square feet. It just looks like someone may be making moonshine in the back.
Like a setting from the Old West, replete with a silhouetted cowboy on the façade, the small, historic former home bottles a bounty of whiskeys, including distinctively flavored ones ideal for mixing in cocktails or sipping straight.
A lemon-infused concoction blends perfectly with tea to create a more intoxicating Arnold
Palmer, but is also delicious on its own. Whiskey infused with garlic is great for cooking and bloody mary making. Their supple, sippable Mahogany Whiskey is aged in stainless tanks with mountain mahogany and oak for two months before bottling. Leading up to the rodeo, they’re offering specials on a peach cocktail made with the whiskey along with straight servings of the Mahogany masterpiece that took home a silver medal at the 2016 International Spirits Awards.
Beer lovers will also appreciate Verdi Local’s booze. Owner/Distiller Jeremy Baumann collaborates with Reno breweries to create ‘Hoppymess.” Hops provide a distinct aroma as the glass is raised and a subtle, hoppy flavor.
“We distill their beer into a whiskey using a pot still. This allows a lot of the beer’s original flavor to come through,” Baumann explains. “We then age them in an oak barrel for at least one year.”
Head to the country nearby Reno and let the rodeo action soak in over live music and cocktails on Verdi Local’s back porch or get a tour and tasting for $20.
As you journey back to Reno, whiskey purists will love The Depot. Sure, Head Distiller and Co-Founder Brandon Wright attended formal training at the American Distilling Institute, but he says, “The best lessons are learned hands-on. One of the big challenges to becoming a distiller is that home distilling is still illegal.”
At The Depot, that’s no problem. Their bohemoth tanks and expansive space gives the team ample room for exploration on their quest to create the classic American whiskey. Almost all of the grains used are sourced locally, largely from neighboring estate distillers Bently and Frey Ranches.
Wright focused on making a drinkable, well-rounded American bourbon and an unaged white whiskey made from silver corn as the distillery’s keystone spirits. Validating they were headed in the right direction, they’ve won gold medals for their whiskeys at both American and global spirits competitions.
He encourages people to start with a bourbon, then taste other varieties with different flavor profiles. Rye adds some spiciness—theirs some bittersweet notes because of the chocolate rye they use—while corn-based and barrel-aged whiskeys are usually sweeter.
Some of their liquor pack a hefty proof punch. But starting that high is a great way to taste the true essence of a whiskey, and a fascinating way to explore its elements. At fine bottle tastings, the distiller will often serve their product with ice and water on the side so you can release notes to your personal tastes.
“Take a whiskey at 123 proof, then start to mellow that whiskey out. When you add water, the whiskey starts to open up, there’s an actual exothermic reaction that gives off a little heat and volatiles start to come out . . . if that’s not right for you, add more,” Wright says. “It’s truly the best way to taste a fine whiskey.”
The Depot offers six to eight different whiskeys at any given time, tours by appointment, and flights to sample several. The three story brick building which houses all of The Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery’s operations was built in 1910 to serve as the headquarters for the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway. It is Nevada Historical Marker 210 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Wright claims, "By making our whiskey in downtown Reno, buying grains from local ranches, and offering those spirits to our friends and neighbors, it's our hope that our business and our facility continues to be a point of pride for our community."
Getting in the whiskey mood? Visit these or any of the other skilled area distillers and find out why whiskey is a booming business today.