Opening a brewery, distillery or restaurant with health codes, complex liquor laws and expensive capital is hard enough for one entrepreneur. So when Chris Shanks and Brandon Wright decided to open all three in one business, they knew they couldn’t do it alone.
“I’m not greedy, I didn’t want to hoard the profits all to myself,” said Chris Shanks, co-owner of The Depot Craft Brewery Distillery on Fourth Street and Evans Avenue. “I knew the more people I had, the better the project would be. It’d be tough as hell if I had to man the helm alone.”
College friends Justin Stafford and Brandon Wright joined Shanks as co-owners of The Depot, forming a team of restaurateurs who handle different parts of the only combined brewery, distillery and restaurant in Nevada. Stafford previously consulted casino restaurants in Las Vegas on equipment, sales, setup and operation. Now he manages the food service of The Depot. Wright worked at Silver Peak Brewery & Restaurant since age 16. Now as brewmaster and head distiller at The Depot, he focuses exclusively on producing beer and spirits. Shanks’ background in real estate led him to purchase Louis’ Basque Corner — next door to The Depot — in 2011. This gave him the experience needed to manage The Depot’s business side.
Every day for two years, Shanks said he looked at the 105-year-old train depot next to Louis’ Basque Corner and knew it needed a new life. In 2013, Shanks’ family trust purchased the building. This means the Shanks family is the landlord responsible for the $2M renovation and utilities updates while the tenant, The Depot — a combination of the three of them and three investors — owns the food and beverage equipment inside.
The Depot opened New Year’s Eve 2014 and has been busy non-stop for the first month. Two beers already sold out, due in part by constant customers and also because one brite tank arrived broken, slowing down beer production until a replacement comes in May. They already ordered new equipment to expand, which is something most breweries don’t need for the first year or more.
Because of this high demand for beer, The Depot will only distribute its Silver Corn Whiskey starting mid-February. The business owners signed on with locally-owned distributor, Wirtz Beverage Group, an important fact underscored by Shanks. He hopes they will only distribute to a few retail stores and bars to keep the demand for immediate inventory low to start. Many Nevada spirits producers sell cases to Costco or Raley’s supermarkets, but this creates constant high-volume sales, something The Depot cannot keep up with right now.
Their Silver Corn Whiskey, a 100-percent corn whiskey, is packaged in 500-milliliter bottles, which as it turns out, have been illegal for alcohol use since 1989. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved The Depot’s labels and bottles by accident. Luckily, the agency gave The Depot a one-time only approval to sell 7,000 bottles instead of forcing the business to trash all the bottles. Later, Shanks said they will probably switch to standard 750-milliliter bottles for all their spirits. They originally choose 500-milliliters to lower the price of the craft spirit and to allow customers to take home three bottles, instead of two per month. This limit comes from Nevada’s Craft Distiller Bill, which dictates that distillers can only sell two, 750-milliliter bottles, or 1,500 milliliters, to each customer per month at the distillery.
In the brewery-distillery, visible from the first-floor bar, Wright toils with heads, hearts and tails. These three parts make up some of spirits’ flavor profile before aging or adding botanicals. Wright tastes the break point between the nasty, dangerous heads and hearts by repeatedly pouring clear spirits onto his hand and putting his fingers in his mouth. Once the heads are gone, he can start collecting the hearts, which make up the majority of a spirit. Later, he will do the same for the tails. The tails add complex flavors and oils. Including the right volume of each determines the final flavor of the spirit.
Sourcing grain for spirits continues to become easier in northern Nevada as Wright plans to take full advantage of Winnemucca Farms and Frey Ranch in Fallon, two farms that provide some or all grain for four of Nevada’s distilleries. Another option is to approach The Depot’s investors about growing grains on their property, which would allow the depot to claim estate distillery status if Wright uses 100 percent of the grain from these ranches.
“Colby Frey (owner of Frey Ranch Estate) is a great guy to work with,” Shanks said. “It’s nice when you can have people with arguably the same business sell you their corn. That’s the nice thing about the brewing and distilling community: everyone will help you in a pinch and offer advice. It’s a nice community to be in.”
In the coming weeks and months, Reno can also look forward to a new local gin that will start as experimental cocktails at The Depot bar. They will begin aging bourbon and single-malt whiskey for release in Spring and Summer 2015.
“That’s the great thing about having a bar, craft distillery and brewery,” Chris said. “We have so many avenues to explore and get customer feedback. Our cocktails will probably change with every gin we come up with. It’s really exciting.”
Michael Higdon runs DrinkableReno.com, a blog covering beer and spirits trends in Northern Nevada. This story originally ran online Jan. 19, 2015.
Correction Mon. Feb. 9 at 11:15 a.m.: The entities making renovations and equipment purchases were not correctly clarified. A brite tank arrived broken to the brewery, slowing down production of beer.