Grain to Glass and Climate Change: An Interview with Frey Ranch Founder Colby Frey

Grain to Glass and Climate Change: An Interview with Frey Ranch Founder Colby Frey

Colby Frey

Frey Ranch sits in a unique segment in American whiskey: a full farm and distillery estate operation, they grow every bit of their own grain, then distill and age on site. And as a Nevada-based operation, they operate in one of America’s driest climates, often putting them at the forefront of climate change’s impact on everything from growing grain to aging barrels.

Recently, Drinkhacker caught up with Frey Ranch co-founder Colby Frey, a fifth-generation Nevada farmer who is looking decades ahead when it comes to both grain and aging operations. As Frey Ranch continues their growth — on pace to lay down over 4,000 barrels in 2023 — even small fluctuations in climate will have greater impacts on their operation. Colby was forthcoming about how that could challenge their growth — and what his team is doing in response.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability. 

Drinkhacker: Can you give us a sense of size, scope, and scale of Frey Ranch’s operation? Acreage used for grain that goes into the whiskey, proof gallons distilled per year, barrels filled, etc.?

Colby Frey: One of our core tenets as a distillery is that Frey Ranch will never source grains from anywhere outside of our own farming operation to create our whiskeys. For this reason, each year we plan to grow and harvest at least 1 ½ times the grains we will need to ensure we have extra on hand for any unforeseen circumstances. Mother Nature is unpredictable, which is why during each planting season, we factor in grain overages for dry seasons, wet seasons, and every weather-driven eventuality. The ability and desire to produce whiskeys made from the grains we grow and harvest ourselves is our reason for being and the essence of who we are as farmers first and foremost.

As we look at our total operation, today we farm about 2,500 acres and own around 2,000 acres, which we utilize to grow our crops, including corn, wheat, barley, rye and oats – and our rotation and export crop – alfalfa. We lease those extra 500 acres from a neighboring farm. In 2023, we will plant about 580+ acres of our slow grown wheat, rye, barley and oats, and next spring, an additional 250+ acres of yellow dent corn. Those 830+ acres will yield more than 100,000 9-liter cases of Frey Ranch Whiskey. One important point is that we grow for quality never for quantity – so we have extra acres to determine what our needs may be and can plan accordingly.

As of today, we are on pace to fill more than 18,000 barrels since our distillery operation was born – and this year alone we’ll fill about 4,500 barrels with a majority of those barrels allocated to producing our Frey Ranch Four Grain Straight Bourbon.

A majority of the barrels we lay down are earmarked for bourbon – 80% to be exact – with the remaining 15% allocated to rye product and 5% to our experimental whiskies, like 100% malted corn or our new Frey Ranch American Single Malt Smoked.

As part of the brand’s expansion plans, earlier in 2023, Frey Ranch launched in Arizona and Texas, making us now available at retail, and in bars and restaurants in six states. We expanded our distillery operations with the addition of two fermenters and a mash cooker – increasing overall production capacity by 50 percent.

Drinkhacker: How might climate change impact Frey Ranch’s operations? Have you all seen any impacts of climate change since opening?

Colby Frey: As a fifth generation farmer, my family has weathered the storm both literally and figuratively – and at this stage, we’ve experienced every conceivable weather pattern in the Northern Nevada region. The key to survival is adaptation and realizing that there is no calendar or farmer’s almanac that will guide your success. You learn through trial and error, and fortunately when Ashley (my wife and co-founder) and I decided to launch our whiskey operation, we had a blueprint for how to navigate Mother Nature’s whims from more than a century of firsthand experience from my forefathers.

Because farming and agriculture aren’t a “one size fits all” business, we factor in the unique climate, terroir, water source and topography in Northern Nevada to ensure we are yielding the best, most desirable crops. Nevada has the driest climate in the U.S., and we have access to water run-off from the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, so what works for us in this region isn’t necessarily going to work for farmers in the Midwest or Northeast. Alternatively, what works in their region might not work for us.

As fifth generation stewards of the land, we aim to leave the land better than we found it. And that approach means doing things the right way, not the easy way. Sustainability (or what we call taking good care of the land so it takes good care of us) is an important part of our process because it is how it’s always been done on our farm with several generations worth of trial and error to get it right.

Drinkhacker: Let’s talk about Frey Ranch’s efforts focused on sustainability.

Colby Frey: The decisions we make are always about sustaining our land and our business, as those are paramount to our success and require our attention in equal measure. If we don’t take care of our environment, soil, and natural resources, we will not have a future as farmers. We see ourselves as temporary stewards of the land. I was fortunate to inherit the land from my parents in great condition and my goal in life is to leave it to my family in as good or better condition.

Our sustainability measures at Frey Ranch are based on common sense and generations of experimenting with the land, the climate, and the terroir in Northern Nevada. We are very proud to grow 100% of the grains we use to create our portfolio of American whiskeys, as not many U.S. whiskey brands can say the same. This has a sizeable impact on reducing our carbon footprint, as we aren’t hauling grains from Canada or overseas.

After the grains are malted and distilled at the Ranch, the leftover spent grains from the fermentation process are hauled on a tractor to the dairy next door providing a nutrient supplement for their dairy cows. In exchange, the cows provide “nature’s best fertilizer” – manure – which then is used on the soil that grows Frey Ranch’s whiskey grains – including our corn, wheat, barley, and rye.

Other sustainable aspects of our business include growing alfalfa, which is a long-term crop that does not require annual tilling – allowing the soil to maintain its natural carbon and microbes. Alfalfa is a legume and replenishes the soil by producing its own nitrogen naturally, getting the soil prepared for future crops. Essentially, alfalfa is “easier on the land.” We’re also on a 7-year crop rotation to keep our soil healthy and fertile.

The word whisky translates into Gaelic for “water of life” and, of course, we can’t grow our crops or make whiskey without water. Nearby Lake Tahoe is known for its crystal-clear water, and we use this same Sierra Nevada snowmelt to flood irrigate our whiskey fields. By manually operating the water canals through hand-powers gates, we rely on 100% gravity and no electricity. To efficiently cool our stills and fermenters, natural water is stored on the Ranch which saves more electricity than anti-freeze or electric cooling systems.

As a final piece, we upcycle our used Frey Ranch whiskey bottles into candles, vases and grain jars and encourage customers to reuse their bottles or drop them off at the Ranch. In addition to the bottle itself, the topper is made with 100% recycled metal.

Drinkhacker: What are some common misconceptions or added challenges regarding the operation? What might people not understand for a true grain-to-bottle operation?

Colby Frey: Because we grow all of our whiskey grains ourselves, we can stay true to our mantra of prioritizing quality over quantity – tailoring our planting and harvesting projections based on our own needs versus relying on the variables of the open grain market.

What’s interesting is that we are forecasting on two fronts: crop planting and harvesting, as well as barrel aging. For example, we are planting rye right now that won’t be ready to harvest until August 2024. Then, that harvest season has to sustain us until we harvest in August of 2025. This means we have to plan much farther ahead of a traditional distillery. When you are buying grains off the open market, you can order what you need, but at Frey Ranch we have to be methodical in what we plant, grow and harvest, so our projections need to be precise to account for not only the time we need to grow the crops, but also the time our whiskey is sitting in barrels aging in our warehouses. It’s incredible to think that the grains we plant today won’t be consumed in one of our whiskeys until 2030 or 2031 at the earliest.

And, of course, being a Nevada distillery, we are located in a desert climate. However, we are lucky to be located in Fallon, Nevada. Fallon is called the “Oasis of Nevada,” because we have access to water from the Truckee and Carson Rivers and water is stored in a reservoir until we need it. For us, it all starts and stops with our grains, so we make sure not to plant crops that are overly water dependent. At Frey Ranch, we practice flood irrigation, which uses 100% gravity and no electricity. In fact, flood irrigation creates hydroelectric power during its journey to the farm. This allows us to use water only when our crops require it versus relying on Mother Nature

Drinkhacker: If you could go back in time and offer yourselves one piece of advice before starting distilling operation, what might it be?

Colby Frey: As one of the only true estate distilleries in the country, Ashley and I are incredibly proud of what we’ve built – and are grateful for the amazing team behind Frey Ranch – as well as our whiskey fans and the Nevada community – who have gotten us to where we are today.

In hindsight, I’d remind myself to stay true to who we are – farmers, first and foremost- which has served us well, as we’ve taken a lot of the efficiencies we learned in farming and applied them to our distillery operations.

As a start up back then, we may not have anticipated the market potential for a farm to glass distillery – and perhaps we would have been more ambitious with the size of our earlier operations, but we feel we are growing at pace and staying on top of innovations while nurturing our core whiskey expressions.

But to cap it off, honestly our favorite thing about getting into the whiskey business has been the community and camaraderie. There are so many incredible people who touch this business – from fellow distillers, to bartenders, to retailers, to our fans, to the people like yourself who write about whiskey for a living. It’s been an honor to carve out a niche for ourselves with our farm-to-glass approach and welcome people to our Fallon farm – which is also our family home.

David Tao is a writer for Drinkhacker.

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