By Nellie Day
The Henderson company has made it a prerogative to use local ingredients and help out fellow regional businesses as much as possible. One of the distillery’s mottos is “Cheers for good Nevada spirits!,” a sentiment these happy customers (right) seem to appreciate.
Henderson distillery becomes the first business of its kind in Nevada—with a little help from its friends.
Like many Nevadans, George Racz came to the Silver State in pursuit of the American Dream. The Hungarian-born immigrant saw opportunity in the Las Vegas Valley, though it wasn’t gold or a huge jackpot he was after; it was a good cocktail. A fine drink wasn’t hard to come by in Sin City, but one made with locally distilled spirits was.
In 2009, Racz uprooted his wife and son from their first American home in New York City to open Nevada’s first legal artisan distillery since Prohibition. The idea came to him after visiting a craft distillery in upstate New York and hearing about a new legislation trend that allowed small operators to buy a distiller’s license for a fraction of the commercial license’s cost.
Racz found a space in Henderson and imported the finest German distilling equipment, but he soon began to realize the price they’d pay for being the first to market the unique product. “We thought we’d be up and running in six months, but it took two years,” he says.
Come to find out, Racz didn’t have the legal background to properly navigate Nevada’s three-tier system, which requires that liquor companies move their products to customers by way of a distributor and not directly. “Under the system, we couldn’t sell our vodka,” he explains. “We couldn’t hand out samples to visitors like wineries or breweries could. We couldn’t even sell T-shirts.”
While Racz may have lacked the legal knowhow to initially make the distillery a success, he had other things going for him. His keen work ethic and love for Nevada helped him build a group of friends who would eventually become business partners.
Justin Wallin first met Racz when he was hired to build the distillery. Christian Escobedo was part of a Bartenders and Beverage Union tour that came through the distillery when it opened.
Neither man knew it at the time, but they were about to make Nevada history. “One day, Christian and I were at the distillery and George just seemed so down,” Wallin says. “We asked him ‘why are you so sad?’ and he said he was two days away from bankruptcy. We asked what we could do to help, and he said, ‘Open up a distribution company.’”
Just like that, Booze Brothers Beverage was born. “He said it on a Friday, I talked to my wife on a Saturday, and we were on board by that night,” Wallin added.Escobedo followed suit. The South Point Casino bartender founded Half Full Artisan Shop, and with that, the partners created the first three-tier system in Nevada to operate under one roof.
The trio celebrated their grand opening on November 17, 2012 with First Edition Day. Nearly 2,000 well wishers toured the distillery, bottled and bought the first batches of locally made spirits, and toasted the new partners with complimentary cocktails.
Racz’s luck seems to have turned around. He and his associate distiller, Sid Kindler, can be found at the distillery nearly every day. The pair gives tours, explains the distilling process, and helps customers bottle, label, and wax seal their own spirits before handing them over to Booze Brothers. The distribution company then walks the bottles next door to Half Full’s retail shop, where they can be legally purchased.
Even when Racz is not around, his influence is everywhere. It’s in the photos and trinkets lining the shelves welcoming people to the distillery. It’s in the gigantic twin pot stills that Racz refers to as the Las Vegas Copper Angels, Swan on the left and Rose on the right. The large pressure cooker also has a name. And a moustache. “We call him Big Mo; Mo being short for moustache because my son, George Jr., says, ‘A cooker is a chef, and a chef has to have a moustache,’” Racz explains.
Stephanie Wells and Lori Kolde are recent customers who met Racz, Kindler, and Big Mo after hearing about the grand opening. Both chatted with Racz and took in the scenery before heading to Half Full to peruse the merchandise.
They emerged with whiskey, vodka, and moonshine, which they asked Racz to sign. He happily obliged. “I’d like to say I’m going to save this now that he’s signed it,” Kolde says. “But that just means I’m going to have to come back tomorrow because if I don’t, I know I’m going to open it.”
The distillery keeps customers like Kolde coming back with its variety of pours. In addition to whiskey, vodka, and moonshine, the distillery makes gin, rum, and its ever-popular Rumskey, a 50-50 blend of rum and whiskey that recently received the Silver Medal 2012 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It is the first Nevada-made spirit to achieve such a feat. The libation is currently featured in the Hendertucky, a custom cocktail available at The Cosmopolitan’s Vesper Bar.
Las Vegas Strip-visiting tourists can also taste the distillery’s moonshine at Luxor’s Centra Bar & Lounge and at Meatball Spot in Town Square. Those who can’t make it to the distillery can pick up their bottle of choice at Albertson’s, Lee’s Discount Liquor, Total Wine & More, and Whole Foods.
Racz’s spirits have become so popular they’ve been used in food. Sin City Cupcakes produces the NV Rumskey, made with cinnamon, honey, cheesecake, and Rumskey, and the NV White Lightning, made with lemon, blackberry, and moonshine. Racz is also in talks with 1888 BBQ Sauce, another Henderson-based company that wants to use his whiskey.
The spirits have not only made their way into local products, they’re made with local products. In keeping with the distillery’s “think local, drink local” mantra, Racz buys all his corn, rye, wheat, and oats from Winnemucca Farms in Northern Nevada. While he hopes to soon experiment with the farm’s other crops, such as potatoes, he’s proud to say his next venture is bourbon. Governor Brian Sandoval toured the facility in 2011, during which time he autographed a special barrel of the aging elixir. It will be released in 2014 during Nevada’s sesquicentennial celebration.
Racz hopes to soon be part of another celebration as well. He and Kindler are teaming with Nevada Assemblyman Cresent Hardy on Bill Draft 607, which aims to clearly define and establish guidelines for craft distillers in Nevada. This legislation would undoubtedly make it easier for others to operate in the state—something many business owners would not want—but Racz doesn’t shy away from competition. He welcomes other business owners as part of the community. “I absolutely believe in working together,” he says. “Let’s help each other, let’s survive and prosper together.”
If the Las Vegas Distillery serves as a sample of what’s to come, the concept of craft distilling may have just found a new home in Nevada.
In addition to whiskey, vodka, and moonshine, the distillery makes gin, rum, and its ever-popular Rumskey, a 50-50 blend of rum and whiskeythat recently received the Silver Medal 2012 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
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