Soaked in history
A local craft distillery re-released a whiskey first made on the Nevada frontier before the Civil War
Some people, when they want to re-live history, dress up in hand-sewn soldiers’ garb, shoot some blanks from a revolver, and reenact the Battle of Gettysburg. Not Tom Adams. When he wants to go back in time, he recreates a different kind of shot—the intoxicating, liquid kind: period re-enactment whiskey.
Old Commissary, reportedly Nevada’s first commercially made whiskey, was produced circa 1862 by the Cave Creek Distillery (later the Overland Distillery) in Ruby Valley. According to Adams’ blog, in 1877, “the railroad brought Kentucky Bourbon out West, public tastes changed and the distillery was forced to liquidate.” He learned about all this from Steve Treehall, a friend from Ruby Valley.
Adams is a born tinkerer who’s hard pressed to remember a time before he was fascinated by craft distilling. He’s also part-owner of Seven Troughs Distillery in Sparks, where the small-batch spirits’ names and labels pay tribute to local phenomena: Black Rock Rum; Recession-Proof Moonshine. So naturally, he decided he’d attempt to re-create Old Commissary Whiskey. In March of this year, he released the closest interpretation of the long-dormant brand he could come up with.
Seven Troughs is in a tidy warehouse in an industrial neighborhood in Sparks. In a modest showroom at the front of the building, the aroma of sweet, raw corn greets visitors at the door. Wooden shelves are lined with tall bottles, mason jars, and clay jugs of spirits, and someone is usually chatting with customers from behind a three-stool bar or pouring samples into clear, plastic cups.
On a recent Thursday morning, Adams, sporting a goatee, a polo shirt and the congenial nature of a native Nevadan who loves to tell a good story, explains his distilling process.
At first glance, making a historic style looks like making any other whiskey. Barley is ground in a machine that looks like a bulletproof coffee-grinder, then yeasted and fermented in 130-gallon oak barrels. The barrels are coated on the inside with food-grade lime to add calcium to the water. That makes it more closely resemble the Ruby Valley’s water, which is reputed to be delicious.
Employee Bryan Harter stirs the mash with a very long mixer bit attached to a drill. (Harter, one of just three employees, has no official title; they call him The Mash Man.) Adams pauses to admire the vodka dripping from a tall, shiny, modern still, which manager Kelsey Kuhnmuench oversees. It comes out just right, and the two fist bump in celebration.
Adams’ attention goes back to the Old Commissary process tour, and it’s here that things start to look a little different. This whiskey is distilled in a contraption that looks like a 100-gallon, steel tank grafted on top of a brick fireplace with a soot-coated, glass door.
Is this usual?
He shook his head and slowed his cadence: “Not. What. So. Ever. It is inefficient. And inconvenient. But it’s authentic.”
He designed this still himself. “I’m not a mechanical engineer,” he said, but he’s no stranger to big projects. In his day job, he’s a geologic engineer who designs roadways.Surprisingly smooth
Adams has soaked up a lot knowledge making his own spirits and visiting bourbon producers in Kentucky. For this project though, he was, to some extent, starting from scratch.
“There’s no handbook for this,” he said. “We don’t have a recipe book that says, ’Do this, this and this.’”
So he called Joyce Cox, formerly head of reference with the Nevada State Library. She’s retired now, but she still does contract research.
Adams asked her to help piece together the story behind Old Commissary.
Cox said newspapers were often the most fruitful sources. Searching digitized versions of papers such as the Daily Nevada State Journal from Reno and the Reese River Reveille from Austin, she found stories about the origin and culture of Fort Ruby, whose soldiers bought the whiskey. She found detailed references to the area’s farming output, which included copious amounts of barley, and a for-sale ad for the distillery in a San Francisco paper.
After about a month of research, she presented Adams with an inch-thick stack of photocopies, sparsely marked with a yellow highlighter, and a cover letter saying that it had been a fun project.
While Cox was piecing together shards of history, Adams was noticing that not even a shard of surviving bottles of Old Commissary have been found. He talked with historic glass expert Fred Holabird, who advised that the whiskey had likely been sold in clay jugs.
Through a friend of friend, Adams met potter Joe Winter. As luck would have it, Winter had recently perfected wheel-thrown, ceramic beer growlers for breweries and retailers in the region, with each company’s logo stamped into the clay.
“Tom showed me pictures of old-style bottles,” said Winter. “They’re all obviously salt-fired.” That means salt is thrown into the kiln during firing. It melts and forms a glaze-like, translucent coating on the bottles. Winter was already a master of the technique, so getting a historically accurate glaze was no problem.
The challenge was getting the size right. The bottles need to hold exactly the required 750 ml. Clay shrinks when it’s fired, and this particular clay shrinks enough to change the volume of the bottle by about 30 percent.
“It took some fine tuning,” he said. “I threw a few and then measured them after they were fired, then made little adjustments.”
Winter has produced about 50 bottles so far, about 30 of which have sold, some to history fans, some to whiskey fans, and some to collectors who say they’ll keep the whiskey unopened on a shelf indefinitely. He plans to produce more, but producing pottery is intensely time-consuming, and he has other projects underway too, so the historic bottles will remain something of a special edition. The rest of the whiskey, which Adams plans to keep producing, will be sold in glass bottles.
“We’re happy with the product,” Adams said, pouring a sample. “Customers like it. It’s unique. It has an organic, grainy nose; it’s raw.” The rawness is his least favorite part if it. “Surprisingly smooth; the husks lend a little astringency to an iodine note; the nose is very green, not floral, not oaky; wildly the opposite of bourbon.”
Adams said he’s not offended when drinkers add a splash of ginger beer. He said in-house mixologist Jeremy Fried is working on incorporating Old Commissary into a few cocktail recipes.
While Adams may not have found ready-to-use recipes or original packaging, he did find that in Elko County, oral history traditions run deep. He’s heard some great stories while researching frontier-style whiskey, and he’s hoping to learn more. Ruby Valley and Elko County residents, if you have a story about the original Old Commissary or anything related, Tom Adams would like to hear it.
Of course, he said, “The holy grail would be to cough up a bottle of Old Commissary.”