Booze Banter

A Smoky Water of Life Flows in the Sonoran Desert

Mesquite is a quirky and prolific species of plant. Native to the American Southwest, Texas, and northern Mexico, it’s a plant or tree in its numerous varieties that conjures up cowboys, vacqueros, and Spaghetti Westerns. Part of the legume family, the tree grows funkily and wide with twists and turns, elbows and dog legs, plus thorns for defensive purposes all making them great for postcards, tough little birds to perch in, charcoal making, and firewood.

Stephen Paul figured out something else to do with mesquite wood. Make furniture. A few decades back, he started taking this weird wood and carving out home furniture in Tucson, Arizona. Tables, chairs, armoires, and the like. And he got pretty damn good at it. Arroyo Design became synonymous with high quality, unique home furnishings even though mesquite is not the easiest component to work with. Take all those funky twists and turns, add knots, bullets, barbed wire and whatever else that has found its way into the limbs and trunks, and you have something far more complicated to work with than, say, your friendly, homogeneous, and monotonous Home Depot 2×4 of Douglas Fir.

It takes a great deal of persistence and creativity with the various shenanigans that mesquite wood brings to the table saw and lathe. But Stephen took on the challenge and built Arroyo Design up as their handmade fine furniture became well known and award winning. No one else was using mesquite in furniture making to this degree and Stephen saw it as something intrinsically Tucson and the Sonoran Desert.

That lack of homogeneity with the wood brings with it a fair amount of waste. Scraps are thrown into the dumpster by and large, and Stephen would bring buckets of it home for the fireplace and barbecue.

Behind almost every successful man is a woman with a better idea, which might bring on an argument (not to be confused with a cargument), or better yet, something worth pursuing. Or both. Stephen’s wife, Elaine, wondered one evening around the fire while burning up some of those wood chunks if barley could be smoked with mesquite to make whiskey. See, the Pauls were casual Scotch drinkers and knew the basics of the whisky making process. Drying out barley with peat or some such. It was probably a more complicated process, but it made Stephen intrigued nonetheless. Very intrigued. Mesquite smoked barley.  That might be a thing.

So, like all good would-be distillers, Stephen bought himself a tiny “tabletop” 5 gallon alembic pot-still from Portugal, experimenting with the process and admittedly making really horrible… well, something that barely was distinguishable as whiskey. “Blech” might have been a good name for all of the experiments. But he wasn’t giving up. The little still became a bit of a conversation piece at the furniture factory as visitors noticed it not exactly hiding in plain sight.

Bit by bit the experiments got better, Stephen dove in deeper, learning more about the whole process of creating a flavor, and his daughter, Amanda, got involved with the project. Amanda told her father (after he bought a 40 gallon pot still from Europe) that they need to do this the right and legal way. The Pauls were not going to be moonshiners. Amanda, now Hamilton’s creative director, is a good daughter and my two should take notice of this good daughterness of watching over her father. She probably just didn’t want to go to jail.  Be that as it may, this foresight back in 2011 started the process of getting properly permitted so the bad whisky making could continue legally!  Well, not exactly.  A little bit of knowledge and practice went a long way, and somewhere along the way the juice started tasting good. Really good, in fact. Stephen figured out the malting technique plus the barley smoking with that mesquite and he finally hit on something.

But why? Why make the effort? Why figure out how to malt barley in 100° weather? Why buy a copper still and learn all the intricacies of using it? Why smoke said barley with the aforementioned mesquite on your own? Why try and make single malt whiskey at all?  In Arizona?

For Stephen, it’s closely related to his fine furniture making that was still going strong at the time. Making a whiskey that spoke of Tucson and the desert was something that no one was doing. If you’re crazy enough to make furniture out of a desert wood, why not make whisky in the desert with that same wood and the same spirit of the land?

Now malting the barley on your own is off the deep end of one of the many pools dotting Tucson backyards, and a whole different story when making whiskey. Why not call a commercial malting house, tell them to malt barley and dry it with mesquite smoke and just order some? Oh, if it was so easy, we’d all be doing it, right? Under the big banner of “handmade”, Stephen decided to do his own maltings. Now, mind you, there probably aren’t 20 distilleries doing that in the world. In the world! And one is in Tucson. Arizona. Which puts into the company of Laphroaig, Kilchoman, and Highland Park, to name just a few. Those are in Scotland, by the way. No one waters lawns in Tucson, and there isn’t a lot of barley getting soaked either. Granted, there aren’t many lawns in the area that aren’t maintained for golf but that’s beside the point.

Stephen probably would be farming his own barley, but that’s definitely not a thing in the arid Arizona climate. We’ll give him a few years to figure that one out. Currently the barley comes in from Colorado ready for Hamilton’s soak and dry sauna treatment.  Arizona’s few barley farmers are agricultural forward producing high protein grains for livestock feed.  Whiskey making needs barley on the other end of spectrum – high carb with all those starches. Hamilton’s grain makes for a rich, sweet and creamy malt.  But the long term goal is locally grown variety to make Hamilton even more Tucson, Arizonan.

An 8,000 square foot space in a nondescript multi unit warehouse building on the east side of Tucson houses Hamilton Distillers. I-10 parallels the business park that is home to the whiskey maker producing under the Del Bac brand. The front door and face of the building is like many industrial spaces. This glass door differing with only the words “Hamilton Distillers” on it. The back of the building is the “business end” of this shotgun. Next to a loading ramp behind the warehouse is a fenced off area with a squarish metal smoker for lack of a better term. Chunks of mesquite wood were stacked up on pallets next to the smoker and its three interior shelves opening to the north. A venting system takes the sweet smoke from the smoker back into the warehouse for its part in the Del Bac birth. Not long ago Stephen walked me from through the Hamilton process: malting to glass, fire and smoke to whiskey.

On that day with Stephen as the guide, I was treated to a detailed look at how Hamilton does what they do. An unassuming man and avid listener who seemed to be as intent on my words as I of his, Stephen happily brought me up to speed on the Hamilton story. We traced the route that the smoke would take back into the warehouse as it wafts into a large but squat custom made stainless steel cylindrical shaped vessel. This unique custom-made unit doubles as a malting AND kilning container. A big space saver, yes, but in reality it gives Hamilton more control over the details. When you’re making fine furniture or high quality single malt, details are everything.

The little things are crucial in this hot, dry environment that becomes hot and humid then bone-chilling cold at a moment’s notice. The Angel’s have skin cancer from taking their share in the excoriating sun and heat. The process has to be tailored around and with the desert in mind. It’s a world where there are two distinct rainy seasons, where temperatures drop forty degrees in a day or never drop below three digits.  Don’t fight it; just live with it. Casks are stacked up in the middle of the building but not for too long as the summer heat takes it toll. We won’t ever see 5, 10, 25 year old single malt whiskey from Hamilton unless they add a climate control system, move casks elsewhere to age, or put up a really big shade. But then it wouldn’t be truly Tucson.

New American White Oak with a #3 char is the preferred barrel for the mesquite smoked juice to age in. How about a mesquite barrel? Stephen tried that with awful success. Too much of something can be a bad thing it seems. But experiments are ongoing with wine and sherry casks.  In fact a Pedro Jimenez sherry cask is aging Hamilton juice as we speak.

My first visit last August 2017 was short and very sweet. Stopping in a local liquor store, Plaza Liquors and Fine Wines, I saw Del Bac on the shelf for the first time and was very intrigued yet saddened as the Dorado – Hamilton’s mesquite smoked version (there’s also a non-smoked one called Classic) – was out of stock. Tears and/or sweat trickled down my face. It was 106° outside.  The store manager graciously called the distillery and asked if I could come by to pick up a bottle since he wasn’t getting more in for a few days. Dale Riggins, Director of Sales and PR at Hamilton, sold me a bottle, gave me a quick tour, and allowed me to play with the distillery cats and Guero, Dale’s uberfriendly Golden Retriever, aka @guerotheperro on Instagram. And there was a promise of a longer visit on my next stop in Tucson.  Dale’s background brings another multifaceted toolbox to Hamilton.  Wine sommelier and cocktail pro with a more than a twist of tiki in her toolkit, she sees Del Bac as a whiskey with many possibilities.  Neat, with water, in an Old Fashioned, in tiki cocktails, Del Bac’s curious mix of smoke and savoriness lends itself to spinning traditional drinks in directions most wouldn’t think of venturing, and opens up a crayon box of flavors to experiment with.

On my second stop in May of this year, Stephen went above and beyond with his hospitality. We sat and chatted around a large table in the warehouse after the hardcore tour and digging around the casks. The space between the cage of casks and office area is a nicely furnished one. A mesquite hutch with various American whiskies and a few Scotch ones sits along the wall. A bar of sorts on the opposite wall is ready made to pour samples for visitors. In between are various small counter high tables and two long rectangle ones for tastings and special events. Most of the furniture is handmade, of course. There are other distinctly southwestern furnishings including a large picture of Emiliano Zapata just so you don’t forget where you are. ¡Viva la Revolución! And that 40 gallon copper still is in one corner, now a piece of Hamilton history.

Stephen and I settled along one of the long tables and kibitzed about all thing whiskey. This little hobby has become a full-time job, the furniture business now in the past. There’s a grain silo out back that can house 60,000 lbs of barley. Production is continually growing as is distribution. Del Bac is now found in at least a twenty-three states with global distribution into Canada, Japan, the UK, as well as a few other western European mesquite loving countries.

The process is run by only a couple of people. Head distiller Nathan Thompson-Avelino and his assistant Ramon Olivas mind to all the of the details in this simple, efficient, hands on distillery. Hamilton uses a double distillation method with its 500 gallon computerized system. It’s a Scotch style for this Arizonan whiskey in it’s custom made stainless steel still from Oregon. Malting, smoking, mashing, fermenting, distilling, aging and bottling are all done on the premises by Stephen’s small crew though anyone can sign up to help out with the bottling part.

Del Bac Dorado is a mouthful of sweet smokiness that lingers on the tongue for a good long while. Chewy and barbecuey, rich and tangy, the basic Dorado is an eye opener. At cask strength, it’s a robust whirlwind taking your mouth through a bonfire at dusk on a quiet mesa with the bursting sun on its way to the horizon. This is a whiskey built for the desert by people of the desert.

The quarterly released Distillers Cut is a varying experiment clocking in around 60% ABV.  The current batch is finished in an ex-Woodford cask, the last one in a Madeira cask.  Same distillate aging in different woods to see what will happen.

And they also bottle a non-aged version of the mesquite Dorado called Clear.  It’s Hamilton’s new make with a bit more “tails” to it and rested in the bottle for a few months to mellow.  It’s a perfect spirit for cocktails that need a little something extra without going over and into a slot canyon.

The Sonoran Desert is a landscape like no other on the planet. The colors change with the time of day and season. Purples, browns, blues, golds, oranges, grays and whites explode, glisten, and cool as the endless number of stars come out. It can be an eerie mix whether in the roasting summer sun, frigid winter, or end of summer, early fall wet monsoon season. This is the southwestern desert bathed in oppressive sunshine and heat and blackened night skies. Mountains rise up from the cracking terra surrounded in saguaros and patrolled by screaming hawks hunting for prey.

To live here means learning to live in the desert’s extremes. Survival and adaptation are the watch words. Becoming part of this vast land of plenty where some see nothing but dry dirt is vital.  Hamilton Distillers are Tucson and the Sonoran Desert. They’ve taken mesquite – an ancient tree of the land – felled for other uses, and coaxed it with fire to make Hamilton’s “water of life” in a place where water either is a scarce commodity or cascades in frightening torrents depending on the season. If you smoke the barley, they will come, and for Hamilton Distillers the legions are growing, finding this bold whiskey on a growing list of shelves and bars.  Stephen Paul and company are bringing Tucson to the whiskey masses one smoldering mesquite log at a time.

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