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40 Seasons: Farming whiskey

Colby Frey's family has been farming in the high desert area of northern Nevada since 1854, 10 years before the territory became a state. That’s more than 165 years of passing down knowledge about how to raise crops in the region’s specific soil types and climate. 

“We actually have all different soils here on the farm. A sandy clay loam is probably the predominant one,” says Frey. “But it’s crazy. In the same field we’ll have white dirt, black dirt, green dirt, orange dirt, all of it in one. However, we have a good layer of topsoil. My family has always taken really good care of it and built up the soil over the years. We’re fortunate.”

The knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work when raising crops in the driest state in the country has been passed from generation to generation. Frey says his grandfather would write every day in a notebook about what and when he planted, harvested, irrigated, and so on. The 37-year-old takes great pride in what he has learned from that notebook.

“One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my parents and grandparents is the idea that there are no do-overs on the farm. In many situations, by the time you realize you have made a mistake, it is too late to try again until the next season,” says Frey. “This is why it is so important to talk to the generation before you and learn from their successes and failures. Farming is a business, and our window for success is very small, not to mention with razor-thin margins. We often rely on one harvest to make ends meet for the whole year.”

We’re Not Selling

In college, Frey was encouraged to specialize in business management, not agriculture. His grandfather had said, “Most farms that fail, fail for bad business practices, not because of bad farming practices.” 

Because of the slim margins and uncertainty in the markets, Frey’s father, a farmer and CPA, told him he’d be smarter selling the Fallon, Nevada, farm and investing the money in a passive income-producing property or investment. They’d make 10 times the money and wouldn’t even have to work.

No, thanks.

Armed with a business degree and the ability to grow high-quality grains, Frey and his wife, Ashley, were determined to find a way to showcase the Frey Ranch grains while increasing the value of the crops. (Pictured above)

“And we thought, what better way to showcase the crops that we’re growing than to make it into whiskey? We have always loved whiskey,” says Frey. “It was a natural fit for us to take these grains and make it into whiskey. It’s really a way for me to pass the farm onto my kids and make it worthwhile for them to continue on the farm, not just continue it on only to break even.”

Today, the family grows winter wheat, winter two-row malting barley, winter rye, and corn for all their whiskeys. The crops are produced on their 1,500-acre farm and on leased neighboring farmland. The distillery is on Frey Ranch property.

Whiskey Woes

Some kinks had to be worked out at the start of the business.

The Freys got a federal license to legally start distilling in 2006, but Nevada had no state distillery licensing.

“What that meant was we could make it, age it, experiment with it, but we couldn’t let anybody else try it,” he says. “We couldn’t sell it. We couldn’t do anything with it.”

In 2013, distillery licensing laws were finally passed in Nevada. The Freys used those seven years to determine which varieties of wheat, rye, barley, and corn were the best for distilling, as well as the best fertilizer and irrigation management. They also figured out the yeast varieties and recipes.

“So then in 2013 when we were finally able to get laws passed in the state of Nevada, we knew exactly what we wanted and how we wanted to do it,” says Frey. “That really gave me the confidence to build a big, state-of-the-art distillery and start laying down large quantities of whiskey. With better grain inputs, you get better outputs with a higher quality, cleaner distillate.”

‘Cheers’ to a Promising Future

Frey plans to grow the business every year. The bourbon whiskey, which debuted in 2019 after five years of aging, has received much acclaim from spirits reviewers and whiskey lovers, but Frey says he’s a farmer first, because without the farm, they wouldn’t have the distillery.

“My father has always said we are just temporary stewards of the land. We need to take care of our farm and environment, or else we do not have a future as farmers. It is in our best interest to protect our resources, not because it’s the trendy thing to do, but because it’s essential for our livelihood,” says Frey. “We are very sustainable by nature. I am very fortunate because my family passed the farm to me in excellent condition, and it is my goal to pass it on to my children in as good, or better, condition.”

40 Seasons: Farming whiskey

For generations the family has abided by a motto: “Be good to the land and the land will be good to you.” It’s engraved on the bottom of each bottle of Frey Ranch whiskey.

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