Spirit of the West

Nevada’s first legal distillery gets the nod, gets to work

George Rácz knew creating a distillery in the desert would be difficult, especially since there is no precedent in Nevada for such an endeavor. But as he nears the end of a 2½-year journey, Rácz is optimistic that he is on the brink of history.

His two 170-gallon artisan pot stills, purchased in Germany and nicknamed the “Copper Angels,” sit inside a Henderson warehouse, waiting to distill Las Vegas Distillery’s initial offering: a wheat vodka. It will be the first of what Rácz, 43, imagines as a long line of spirits cultivated and manufactured here in the Silver State, including gin, whiskey, bourbon and rum.

The Romanian-born Rácz moved here with his wife, Katalin, from New York in January 2009 with the wild notion of founding a distillery, the first of two slated to begin operations in the Valley. His only previous experience in the spirit world came as a child while helping his grandfather make pálinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. It was while on vacation in May 2008 when Rácz received the inspiration to create his own distillery, catching a television news feature about the founder of Tito’s Handmade vodka, an Austin, Texas-based beverage that has received great critical acclaim since its launch in 1997.

He visited New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits, one of more than 220 micro-distilleries operating in the United States, to learn more about the process. Rácz then set his sights on Las Vegas because of its international appeal and the lack of distilleries statewide. But after arriving in Southern Nevada, he realized that finding homegrown ingredients could present a problem.

“When we came here we were scared that we would not find the right raw materials, what we need for the still,” he says. “When we looked on the map and we saw a little green facing north, we were [relieved].”

Rácz’s trip upstate took him to Winnemucca Farms, where it was harvest time for its soft, white winter wheat. Not only is Rácz using the wheat to make his initial batch of vodka, but this spring the farm is going to start producing rye, oat and barley exclusively for the distillery. About the only ingredient Rácz will have to get outside the state is the molasses for his rum.

“All our vodka and gin will be made from Nevada-grown raw material, which is very, very important if you want to be a Nevada distillery,” he says. “If you are getting all your things from Kansas or Indiana, it’s not the same.”

For Rácz, keeping his operation as authentic as possible is crucial to his success. He has invested more than $500,000 in the business and has been ready to start cooking since the end of February, but is still waiting for final approval from the state before he can move forward.

“After 2½ years, what’s another two or three days?” he says. “When I have that envelope in my hand, maybe I will cry, but I will kiss my wife several times. That is a big moment.”

Since there are no licensing guidelines or regulations for operating a distillery in Nevada, Rácz introduced a bill through the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor for this year’s Legislature that will shape the industry. Among the proposed requirements are that at least half of the raw materials used must be grown in the state and that no more than 10 percent of products are produced from neutral spirits manufactured by others. Rácz also is proposing provisions that allow for the selling of individual bottles and having tastings on site.

Rácz wants his distillery to become an attraction for both locals and tourists, one where they can smell the sweet corn mash and hear the libations bubbling. And in running a small operation, he is concentrating on quality over quantity, focusing on creating a variety of both signature and special products.

“We don’t need to make thousands of barrels of one product,” Rácz says. “We can make 50 barrels or two barrels of whiskey. And we can make it very smoky or we can make it like a winter style. … Because we will use a lot of different grains, there’s a fantastic variety of what we can do.”

Rácz is already planning a unique seven-grain whiskey—made from wheat, corn, rye, barley, oat, spelt and millet—as well as a special bourbon to commemorate Nevada’s 150th anniversary in 2014.

“It’s been a long journey,” he says. “We thought that we would be really proud to open the first distillery in Nevada. We are a small family, but this is something big for our family to do something new in America.”

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