A Look at the Growing Estates Movement and Farm Spirits

There is a growing real estate movement underway, bringing producers closer to their ingredients. It’s an approach that wine made famous, but which is gaining (or resuming) vigor in other areas of agriculture as well, such as growing grains and making spirits. With artisans seeking to work with what is right in their field, the resulting work is not only tastier and more authentic, but is also a true reflection of the terroir and flavor associated with a specific location.

The estate is something the wine industry has long celebrated. The idea is that the resulting vines and fruit on your property express something unique to that location. It could be climate, soil, altitude, or some other factor, but because it’s unique to that area, you get something unique about the glass. It’s much deeper than that, of course, because succession involves more control over your farming practices and perhaps more familiarity with the land, but in a nutshell, that’s the idea.

Lately, all facets have embraced this concept, from coffee producers to gin makers. This is rather exciting, as it emphasizes a closer relationship between the producer, the ingredients and the final product. And because there’s such a push of identity in the pinot gris, whiskey, mezcal or espresso that’s made, the process is often more environmentally friendly. Many producers don’t want to add anything artificial to take away the uniqueness of what they are making.

In Nevada, Frey Ranch Distillery goes the way of the domain. The brand’s farm-distilled bourbon is made entirely from grains grown on-site, something few players can claim. The family operation, led by fifth-generation farmer Colby Frey, grows non-GMO corn, winter wheat, rye and barley on the land, ultimately turning them into brown spirits.

The site is east of the Sierra Nevada, a 1,500-acre piece of land where the Freys have complete control over the entire production process. All malting, brewing, grinding, distillation and aging is done in-house. In the end, the whiskeys echo all of this, showing detail and a sense of attention and care. While many spirits are simply blended in one place, made with imported grain alcohol or a mash of multi-state grown ingredients, this approach is different and virtually impossible to replicate.

As Frey said, it’s really about getting back to the roots of agriculture. Distilleries did this a long time ago and now it is happening again. “People today care more than ever about where their food comes from, how it’s grown and the process behind it,” he said, referring to the popularity of farmers’ markets. “Frankly, I’m surprised the distilling industry has taken so long to catch on.”

He calls what his family does a “ground to glass” approach to whisky. “I tell everyone, ‘with better inputs, you get better results,'” he says. “As a born and bred farmer, I truly believe you can taste the different grains in our whiskey expressions and that’s because we approach farming and distilling with conservation in mind.”

A bottle of Frey Ranch Rye Whiskey in front of some grains

Frey said the distillery simply wouldn’t be without the farm. “They are both equally important to the operation of Frey Ranch,” he said. “There’s a saying in the wine industry, ‘you can’t make good wine with bad grapes.’ I believe the best way to ensure your end product is of consistent quality is to start with the best ingredients possible, and the best way to get quality ingredients is to grow them yourself.

There are also other advantages. Operation Frey doesn’t dip into its resources to have ingredients shipped to its distillery like so many other brands do, often from faraway international destinations. There is also a simpler mental advantage. “Personally, I find it refreshing to go back and forth between the farm and the distillery,” he added. “It helps keep me grounded and keeps me from burning out.”

Others are on board, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. Brands like Spirits of the Far North in Minnesota and in another Nevada outfit Bently Heritage Estate Distillery pursue the same objective. Hillrock Distillery in New York and a growing number of others elsewhere in the United States are following suit.

Supply chain shortages make the move even more attractive, as it allows a producer to be self-sufficient, or at least nearly so. Recently, brewers have focused more on growing their own hops and sourcing malt domestically. Some wineries are even looking to create their own aging vessels, swapping things like French oak for homemade amphoras or barrels made from local wood.

One of the simplest and perhaps overlooked benefits of farm spirits is the distinction they provide. As America continues to compete with great wine countries like France and Italy or famous spirit-producing locations like Scotland or the Caribbean, it will have more and more unique options to expand its status. For spirits lovers, this is great news.

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