A 35-mile drive south of Las Vegas in Goodsprings, Nevada, The Pioneer Saloon opened in 1913, and is a historical landmark renowned for being the oldest bar in Southern Nevada. And, it has notoriety for the three bullet holes in the wall that were fired at a poker cheater in 1915 and for being the place Clark Gable holed up while he awaited news of his wife Carole Lombard after her plane crashed into Mt. Potosi in 1942. But what is not widely known are the details of the Saloon’s whiskey barrel-aging program.
Tom Sheckells (full disclosure: Sheckells is a cousin to Vegas Seven editor in chief Melinda Sheckells) and his family bought the bar in 2006 and added a restaurant and implemented extensive renovations to restore the property. Another upgrade occurred two years ago when Sheckells purchased 99 fifteen- and 40 five-gallon brand new charred oak barrels for his patrons to experiment with as, he describes, “an adult chemistry set.” Buying the 15-gallon barrel for $500 and bottles of Las Vegas Distillery’s 100-proof moonshine for $25 per 750-milliliter bottle, customers began their experimentation by pouring in as much of the moonshine as they desired (up to about 75 of them!) and then let the maturation process begin.
Sheckells points out that although the whiskey begins at 100-proof, due to evaporation known as the angels’ share (the barrels are stored outside under a shed roof), the finished product winds up being even higher. The barrels can be reused 8-10 times, with each successive use imparting different flavors. “The taste will change over time, and it doesn’t take too long to start changing colors and for flavors to develop,” he says. “During the hot summer months it will age faster, and during the winter it ages more slowly.” Some patrons introduce flavoring agents to the mix such as cherry juice, vanilla extract and pepper but, Sheckells cautions, “Only about a teaspoon should be added; a little goes a long way and it takes longer for the barrel to smooth it out.” Sheckells is available to advise patrons about aging their whiskey, along with Las Vegas Distillery owner George Racz, who comes out periodically to lend his expertise.
As the barrels are individually owned by the customers, they are labeled with unique and flavorful names such as Jet Fuel, Uncle Earnest, Judas Juice, Gable’s Heartbreak and Whiskey Me Away. While the barrel owners hail from all over the world, most are Las Vegans who periodically stop by to unlock their padlocked taps, which becomes a social event, as they proudly taste it with friends. During my visit I met one such barrel owner, Steven Khalilzadegan, who was kind enough to let me sample his creation (it was excellent, by the way). “We filled it on October 5, my birthday,” he says. “We’ll tap it until it’s dry and then we’ll fill it back up.”
Currently all of the 15-gallon barrels are spoken for, so the only option remaining is a five-gallon barrel, which, for $1,500, comes with three cases of moonshine (enough to fill the barrel with two bottles left over). If you don’t want to fork out the investment for your own barrel, perhaps you should make friends with some of the whiskey makers and convince them to let you enjoy the fruits of their adult chemistry set.
Or, if even that seems like too much work, you can of course buy yours already perfected. A very special bottle in particular has arrived in Las Vegas just in time for National Bourbon Heritage Month. Paying homage to Old Forester founder George Garvin Brown’s September 2 birthday is the 17th annual limited-edition release of 2017 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. The barrel selection was drawn from a mix of 12-year-old whiskeys pulled from different warehouses and floors, yielding an extremely spice-forward expression and rounding sweetness with finish of floral undertones and cocoa powder. Old Forester master taster Jackie Zykan says, “The common denominators in this year’s blend are chocolate and black pepper. The finish is interesting, as it really ignites the perimeters of the palate and cascades off into a soft, dry floral bouquet.” The 96-proof expression is now on shelves locally with a suggested retail price of $80, but hurry as these bottles disappear faster than the angels’ share.