Locally produced whiskey will soon be served at bars and restaurants across Tucson, courtesy of Hamiliton Distillers, Pima County’s first craft distillery.
The company has three types of single-malt whiskey ready to roll out in the next couple of weeks, two of which use barley malted over a mesquite fire, giving it a flavor unique to Southern Arizona.
Selling his spirits under the name Whiskey Del Bac, owner Stephen Paul says more than 500 bottles are prepped and a long list of businesses have already signed on to sell, including Wilko in Main Gate Square, Hotel Congress and Penca downtown. Casino del Sol plans to feature it next month.
It is one of a handful of distilleries with active licenses in the state and more than 300 craft distilleries producing across the country, according to Pennfield Jensen, executive director of the American Craft Distillers Association
Craft distilling has been around since the 1980s, but the growth in the last decade has been “phenomenal,” Jensen said.
“Intuitively as well as personally, people have said that they want to do this,” Jensen said. “They think it is going to work and feel they have the economics behind them to survive.”
“We are trying to do something that is new and different,” said Paul, 62. “We’ve had a strong start.”
Paul has been perfecting his whiskey recipes for the last seven years.
His background is in fine furniture.
Paul and his wife, Elaine Paul, have owned and operated Arroyo Design on North Fourth Avenue since 1986, a company that specializes in creating chairs, tables and other pieces of home decor from mesquite.
The idea to start making spirits came from a question posed by Elaine while the couple discussed scotch during an evening barbecue.
If distillers in Scotland used peat to dry the barley during the malting process, she asked, why couldn’t they use mesquite?
The idea intrigued Stephen.
He began researching the distilling process and ordered a 5-gallon copper still from Portugal for $800.
As he became more serious about the craft, he went as far as to hire a sensory-analyst consultant affiliated with the American Distilling Institute to help him improve his process.
“She was very frank and very brutal with me,” he said. “Anytime anyone is frank and brutal, you learn things.”
When one of the Pauls’ Arroyo Design customers offered to invest in a formal distilling business in 2011, they seized the opportunity.
They received state and federal approval and used Paul’s middle name, Hamilton, as the moniker.
“We’ve always been risk takers,” Paul said. “I thought I could probably do it if I could just figure it all out.”
Today, Hamilton Distilling runs out of a free-standing, brick building behind Arroyo, which it shares with the furniture company’s sanding room.
The area houses a 40-gallon still, boxes full of unlabeled bottles, a grain bin and 15-gallon barrels stacked in racks on top of one another.
Paul said Hamilton uses smaller barrels to facilitate a quicker maturation process.
“We are aging in five months, which is fantastic,” he said.
For now, the whiskey will be available only in restaurants and bars, Paul said, but Hamilton Distillers will eventually branch out into retail.
Initial plans are to charge $32-$44 per bottle, depending on the type.
“I’m hesitant to sell retail at this point, because I am afraid we are going to run out of inventory,” he said.
Further production of whiskey is on hold while Paul looks for investors for phase two of the business.
His goal is to raise $900,000 so that he can move the operation into a larger building and transition to a 500-gallon system, among other upgrades.
He plans to close Arroyo Design in the next few weeks as the new business grows and continues to seek out more restaurant and bar owners in the meantime.
On Wednesday, he gave Feast owner Doug Levy, food blogger Adam
Lehrman and Travis Reese and Nicole Flowers, owners of 47 Scott, Scott & Co. and Saint House Rum Bar downtown, a tour of the facility.
They finished with a tasting.
“This will be so good for Tucson,” Flowers said. “We are doing well with craft breweries. This is a whole other way to put the city on the map.”
Levy felt the whiskey provided a sense of place.
“Scotch is scotch, Irish whiskey is Irish whiskey and bourbon is bourbon,” Levy said. “It is nice to see a product of this quality that is quintessentially Tucson.”