Published Monday, June 10, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Updated Monday, June 10, 2013 | 1 p.m.
When George Racz moved his “Copper Angels,” a gigantic pair of German-made pot stills, into a warehouse in Henderson in 2011 to start the state’s first craft distillery, no one but Racz was sure his distillery could make it.
Alcoholic spirits hadn’t been legally distilled in Southern Nevada since before Prohibition, and Racz’s Las Vegas Distillery existed in a nebulous part of the state’s three-tiered regulatory system that separates alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
Although Racz could make his vodkas, gins and whiskeys on-site, he couldn’t give tastings or sell them to the thousands of visitors who passed through his doors each year.
Racz pushed for a bill during the 2011 Legislature that would have created a special category for craft distilleries similar to ones already available for small-scale breweries and wineries.
The effort failed as the session ended without the bill being passed, in part, Racz said, because his business was too young.
Two years later, Racz is toasting his victory and eagerly anticipating a trip Monday to Carson City to watch Gov. Brian Sandoval sign Assembly Bill 153 into law, officially recognizing craft distilleries and awarding them several privileges.
“We’ve survived. We’re a little bit older now,” Racz said of the last two years at the distillery, which included a near bankruptcy that required extensions from his bank and landlord to keep the business afloat. “We’re still here, we didn’t give up in hard times. (Legislators) knew if they’re not dealing with this situation now, George will be up here again in two years. He won’t go away.”
The bill sets out a firm definition for craft distilleries — a business that manufactures spirits from raw agricultural materials — and sets limits on how much alcohol can be manufactured and sold, in this case 10,000 cases per year in state and 20,000 cases out of state. Each case contains 12 750-milliliter bottles.
Customers visiting the distillery, 7330 Eastgate Road, will be able to sample 2 ounces for free, but on-site sales are limited to two bottles per customer per month once the law goes into effect July 1.
The bill went through a number of amendments and required Racz to act as his own lobbyist on trips to Carson City, aided by the bill’s sponsor Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite.
Nearly six weeks passed in this year's session without any action on the bill, and Racz feared a repeat of 2011. Then, on June 1, the bill finally passed the Legislature. Passage came two days before the end of the session.
Now, Racz is looking toward expanding his business and has taken on a role as the unofficial leader of the craft distillery movement in the state, fielding calls and doling out advice to others looking to break into the industry.
He plans to open a bar within the distillery, another provision of the bill that will allow for the unlimited sale of cocktails made with his spirits.
“Each day when the distilling is done, it will become like a speakeasy,” he said.
The distillery’s ever-growing stable of products, which includes two types of vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and Racz’ signature Rumskey, a blend of the two aforementioned spirits, are also finding wider visibility at stores throughout town after initially being limited to less than two dozen liquor stores.
The brand is now carried at Lee’s Discount Liquor, Total Wine and More, Albertsons and Whole Foods, and can soon be found at 20 Smith’s grocery stores and two Costcos.
Racz’s caravan of family, employees and supporters will set out from Las Vegas at 6:30 a.m. Monday to make the drive to Carson City to catch the 2:15 p.m. bill-signing, where they plan to take “an absolutely historic picture that will hang in the distillery for 300 years,” Racz said.
When he returns, his three-year battle to change state law will be finished.
He’s already planning his next challenge.
“I promised my (6-year-old) son that the day after the bill passed I’d start working to lose weight,” Racz said Friday at his distillery, “so if you see someone running around the parking lot, that’s probably just me.”
CORRECTION: This version corrects that Las Vegas Distillery is the first legal distillery in Southern Nevada. | (June 10, 2013)