Young Spirits: Frey Branch Estate Distillery

Bringing farming to the forefront

Article by Jake Emen

Colby Frey is driving me around his family’s farm in Fallon, Nevada, where generations of Freys have been born and raised. “We’ve been growing grain in Nevada since 1854,” he tells me while cruising up the Frey Ranch driveway in a Ford F-250 pickup and waving to his children, who are eating breakfast on the back deck of his century-old home. This is a family operation. That truck isn’t actually his, though. It belongs to Russell Wedlake, the general manager of Frey Ranch Estate Distillery, who lives in a separate house on the property. All the better for coming over any time of the day or night to troubleshoot an overflowing fermentation tank.

It’s sizzling hot in late July, and a murky haze hangs in the air from the raging Carr Fire, the smoke blowing over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Fallon is known for its cantaloupes, and for being the site of the Navy’s Top Gun school. It has also been dubbed The Oasis of Nevada, and the Frey Ranch distillery does indeed welcome you like an oasis, beckoning overheated visitors with promises of air conditioning, beautifully blackened copper stills, and free samples.

Frey Ranch gained its license in 2006 and began distilling in 2013, and while their gin and vodka have long since been on store shelves, the distillery’s first whiskey—a four-year-old, four-grain bourbon matured in full-size barrels—was released in mid-November 2018. “Bourbon was always going to be the focus,” Wedlake says. But rather than release a younger whiskey, a work in progress, the farmer’s ethos of doing things the right way the first time led to a more patient approach.

“Everything we sell here was 100 percent grown, mashed, distilled—everything—right here on the farm,” explains Ashley Frey, Colby’s wife and the distillery’s marketing manager. “Within a mile radius, basically. Nothing has left our possession until you buy the bottle—it’s totally under our control.”

The bourbon mash bill is 67 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and 11 percent wheat, all of it grown on Frey Ranch. That’s a fine-tuned recipe, and the distillery is emphasizing the bourbon’s grain characteristics in its flavor profile. And why not? When you’re growing your own grain, you can vouch for its quality all the way from seedling to sip. Bottled at cask strength, the bourbon showcases a rich, caramel-forward palate, with bananas, spice, and yes, natural grain flavors, particularly from the corn and wheat, shining through.

Frey Ranch owns 1,400 acres and farms a total of 2,500 acres, with alfalfa as the chief crop. This year, it’s all being sent across the world to Dubai. Last year, it was all bought by a customer a mile away. That’s the modern farming life for you. There is also a winery, Churchill Vineyards, on-site, which was started essentially because grapes as a crop don’t require much water. But the family’s tradition, experience, and passion are all tied to the grain. “That 150-plus years my family has here, that’s a lot of trial and error,” Colby says.

There are other whiskeys on the way, including a single malt, rye, wheat, corn, and oat, but Frey Ranch is, above all, a bourbon operation. “We always wanted it to be bourbon,” Colby says. “We want to be the bourbon guys who have an oat whiskey, not the other way around,” Wedlake adds.

Jake Emen
Official Contributor

The man behind Freelance food, drink, and travel writer who’s been published in Whisky Advocate, Eater, Tales of the Cocktail, The Whiskey Wash, Distiller and more.