Visiting the Artisan Booze District in Henderson, Nevada requires one very important thing: directions. It’s a short drive from the Las Vegas Strip, in the heart of an industrial park filled with loading docks and commercial businesses. Even with GPS guiding you, it’s easy to wonder if you’ve gone wrong somewhere as you drive along the tree-lined streets. “You’re not going to see rolling coastal grapevines,” says Nicole Sharp, who does marketing for the District’s only winery, Vegas Valley Winery.
Everything to see (and taste) in the Booze District is hidden inside nondescript buildings, most of which are within walking distance of each other, as long as it’s not blazingly hot outside. Until a few years ago, Nevada laws didn’t allow taprooms or wineries to operate. Many of the small-batch whiskey, beer and wine makers of today’s Booze District were instrumental in changing those laws. Today, the handful of artisanal shops have a steady stream of locals and visitors who want to learn about how their favorite adult beverage is made, plus have a taste.
The people you meet at each stop in the District are excited to tell you about what they do and how they do it. These folks can passionately discuss any aspect of their craft, from the various woods used for barrels to the raw ingredients they source. At the Las Vegas Distillery, the $10 tour and tasting includes enough information about how to make whiskey, vodka and moonshine that it feels like you could take notes and set up your own operation back home. On a recent Saturday tour, the laid-back, friendly atmosphere included a dog, a whiff of the yeasty-smelling sour mash and a tasting challenge with two tiny samples of clear, highly potent booze: “Which has more flavor, and which has more alcohol?
Prior to the challenge (which only four people got right), the group was warned, “Don’t toss this back like a shot, or it will hurt.” At this stage, the stuff tastes like it could be used to run a car. The more refined versions, which include the popular Grandma’s Apple Pie moonshine, are sold on site.
Each establishment in the District offers tours and tastings, although the breweries and winery are where you can regularly pull up a stool and order a drink. The breweries, Bad Beat and CraftHaus, both have small taprooms that are free of smokers and video poker machines. CraftHaus has a small menu, and food trucks make the rounds here periodically. A new brewery, Astronomy Aleworks, is slated to open soon.
The granddaddy of the Booze District might be considered Grape Expectations, a winemaking school that’s been in business for 12 years. The adjoining Vegas Valley Winery, with its tasting room, just opened last year. This is definitely the place to go if you want to geek out with wine talk and sample some incredibly flavorful wines (white, red and rosé), all small-batch creations of the winery made with grapes from California and Chile. If you’re concerned about the possible effects of the recent California wildfires on the grape harvest this fall, these are your people. The place employs a large number of first and second level sommeliers.
Patty Peters, the owner of Grape Expectations, isn’t a sommelier, but she is an endless supply of information about wine. “It’s a living, breathing entity that can be affected by everything. Time affects it. Weather affects it. Temperature, when the grapes were picked, how they’re stored,” she says. “It’s a science, but it’s also an art. And so it’s intriguing as hell.”
Wine enthusiasts have been making their own wine at Grape Expectations for over a decade, and although the nine-month process might seem to exclude visitors from the chance to create their own vintage, Peters points out that people have to tend to their barrel only four times a year (although most people come in more frequently to check on things and “wine-gate,” as Peters and Sharp call it, bringing in food and having a party while they sit amidst the barrels of wine). The cost, $3,900 for a barrel, seems steep at first, but a barrel of wine makes 20 cases, or 240 bottles, which works out to $16.25 per bottle.
Peters says while the wine school has been around for more than a decade, it’s the winery now that’s getting attention. After the laws changed in 2015 to allow wineries, she says it was a “no brainer” to open the tasting room in 2017. “I constantly get calls from people who flew in, or they’re flying in, and they Googled ‘Las Vegas Winery.’ I get a ton of people from Germany, people from all over the United States, lots of bachelorette parties.”
Like the brewery’s taprooms, the tasting room here is smoke-free and gambling-free. Tours of the winery are free when the tasting room is open. Sharp, whose role in marketing includes helping people find the off-the-beaten-path Booze District, firmly believes it’s not just the wine that makes the winery popular. “It’s the people. It’s the connections,” she says. It’s a sentiment that really applies to the entire District – the beer, wine and moonshine are terrific, but the people giving the tours and pouring the drinks are a major part of the draw.
Sharp likes that Henderson’s Booze District offers people something interesting to do beyond the Strip and the casinos. She describes the conversation she hopes visitors are having more frequently: “ ‘What can we do in Las Vegas? Well, let’s go take a tour of the dam, and on the way back from the dam, let’s pop into the Booze District and see the winery.’ ”