—> For all the hooch thrown back daily in Sin City, until fairly recently no whiskeys or other heady spirits had been produced here legally since Prohibition was repealed in 1933. This changed five years ago, thanks to George Racz. That’s when his Las Vegas Distillery opened shop and began turning winter wheat from Winnemucca into crystal-clear vodka. These days, the Henderson-based small business turns out potables from single-grain rye whiskey and rum to seven-grain bourbon and apple pie-flavored moonshine.
—> A circuitous path led Racz to his career as a liquor entrepreneur. Born of Hungarian descent in Romania’s famed Transylvania region, he moved to New York City in the early 2000s when his then-girlfriend, now-wife obtained a U.S. green card as a university student. A bit of local travel became the germ of an eventually fully distilled idea.
“In 2008, we went on a weekend in Upstate New York. By mistake, instead of going left, we went right and found ourselves in front of Tuthilltown Spirits, the first whiskey makers in New York State,” Racz recalls on an early Saturday morning in his shop’s tasting room, prior to leading a weekend distilling class. “We fell in love with the people.
“We just went in and started to talk with them, and at the end of the day, when we went home, we put a map of the United States on the carpet of the living room and started to Google which states didn’t have a distillery. First came Montana, and afterward, Nevada.”
So, completely sight unseen, they decamped for Las Vegas.
—> “We were very naïve,” Racz says. “We’d never been to Las Vegas. We put everything in a blue van — that I have still — and we crossed America.”
Talk about a boozy gamble. He didn’t come from a generational distillery background in Europe, though his grandfather George — as all the males in his lineage are named, including his son, George Jr. — did have a country-style pot still that was used to make small batches of homemade plum and cherry brandies. It was a veritable leap of faith.
Once they settled here in 2009, Racz found himself in a nascent industry sector and set upon the task of educating himself in its operations and finer points.
“There were fewer than 50 distilleries in the United States. Today there are more than 1,000,” he says. “I went up to Spokane, Washington, to Dry Fly Distillery. I met Don Poffenroth and Kent Fleischmann (the founders), who became our mentors and very good friends.” He spent weeks in hands-on learning; he ordered enormous pieces of copper equipment from Germany. He was ready to distill. Almost.
—> At that time, Nevada didn’t have any laws governing the production of high-proof alcoholic beverages. So, with bootstrap DIY grit, he set to working with the Legislature to draft the Nevada Craft Distillery Bill (AB 153), which was signed by Governor Brian Sandoval on June 10, 2013.
Drop by drop, drip by drip, Racz gained expertise in the fine points of distilling over the ensuing years, including the fact that the Mojave’s dry climate claims more than three times the evaporative “angel’s share” than is lost in barrels aged in more humid environs like Kentucky or Scotland. All the while, he gained a growing and enthusiastic customer base, which not only purchases his products but visits for tours, classes, events and drinks at a weekend bar (see lasvegasdistillery.com). Along the way, he also founded the Artisan Booze District, which now includes nearby Bad Beat Brewing, CraftHaus Brewery and the Grape Expectations winemaking school. On October 1, Las Vegas Distillery celebrates its fifth anniversary.
Now that’s something to toast to with two fingers of Black Label Blended Whiskey No. 1 — on the rocks or neat, your choice.