Local Spirit: Microdistillery Captures State's Essence
"Arizona isn't just bad politics, desert and cactus," laughs Rodney Hu, one of Arizona Distilling Company's founders. "Don't forget the golf courses," adds Jon Eagan, his partner.
"We thought it would be cool to have a company that represented the state and had products people could be proud of. Something they could get behind and say 'Arizona does have a microdistillery and they're making killer products'" says Hu.
Five years ago microdistilleries were a new and quickly growing industry in the Pacific Northwest, but just a budding idea amongst four friends from Marcos de Niza High School. It wasn't until June 2012 that owner and master distiller Jason Grossmiller – then a blackjack dealer eager for a change – cashed in his 401(k), leased the Tempe space and "put a gun to everyone's head," jokes Eagan, to establish Arizona Distilling Company.
As a pioneering venture (there are only a handful of microdistilleries in the state), founders Grossmiller, Hu, Eagan and Matt Cummins have had to navigate not only the perpetual challenges of small business ownership, such as raising capital, but the changing legislative landscape as well.
Arizona Distilling Company has introduced first-of-their-kind spirits to the state.
"Bourbon is the national drink, trademarked by the U.S.," explains Grossmiller. "We wanted to be the first to introduce bourbon [making] to Arizona." Their first round "bottling" creation was Copper City Bourbon, made with corn, rye and barley and aged two years in white American oak barrels.
"The label introduces the story of Copper City and its significance to the state," says Eagan. Copper City was one of the largest copper producing cities in its heyday as well as being one of the first craft beer producers, competing with the likes of Anheuser-Busch, before Prohibition went into effect in 1915.
"The stories extend beyond just the raw materials. The font on the Copper City label is based off Legend City, an old amusement park we wanted to pay tribute to from growing up out here," says Grossmiller.
With a rich molasses flavor, undercurrents of fig and a flavor-packed spice profile the distillery's Desert Durum Whiskey is made from locally sourced grains and is the first grain-to-bottle whiskey brewed in Arizona.
"We want to put the best quality product out there that we can. Taking every opportunity in all of our products to showcase Arizona," says Eagan.
"For example, the desert durum wheat used in our whiskey is a really huge grain in the agriculture industry in Casa Grande," he says. Introduced to the Valley in 2004, desert durum wheat, also known as "Desert King," is a larger, denser version of its cousin durum wheat. High in protein, the wheat grows incredibly well in arid conditions like Arizona.
"Distilling-wise, I was told not to use [durum wheat] because of the protein. I didn't listen to them and did it anyway," laughs Grossmiller. "It's really unique. There are only five wheat whiskeys on the market and this one doesn't taste like any of them."
The most recent liquor released by the company is Desert Dry Gin, made with eight locally sourced desert botanicals from Verde Valley.
"I wanted to make a gin that still had piney notes but wasn't overpowering and at the same time commemorate the five C's of Arizona, which are copper, cotton, cattle, climate and citrus," explains Grossmiller. "The five C's of our gin are cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and citrus in the form of lime zest. We also use lavender and apples to represent the apple orchards in Willcox."
With an intense floral aroma, the gin is smooth with each flavor surfacing in turn, from the brightness of the citrus to the spicy tones of coriander and cumin.
"A comment we always hear is 'I don't usually like gin but this one I can drink – even straight,'" says Hu.
In the quest to establish itself as the premier microdistillery in the state, Arizona Distilling Company is not off to a bad start. They are the recent winners of a silver medal for their Desert Dry Gin and a bronze medal for the Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey from the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
"We didn't say 'Awesome! We won a medal.' The reason why we're really proud of the recognition we just got at the World Spirits Competition is that we got these for Arizona. Arizona products won and the state gets recognition," says Eagan proudly. "It wasn't just one microdistillery but distilleries from across the country that competed and Arizona got two medals.'
Soon to be tapped is Arizona Distilling Company's first collaboration with neighboring local craft beer brewer Four Peaks Brewery. Called Humphrey's and named after the highest peak in the Valley, it is an 80/20 malted barley and rye whiskey made from a special mash containing a specialty flaked rye. Humphrey's will be available directly from Arizona Distilling Company's Tempe location.
Also on the horizon are their new agave spirits. Master Distiller Grossmiller has plans for a blanco as well as a reposado and an añejo, which needs to be aged in oak barrels. The agave spirit label will feature the work from prominent local artist Lalo Cota.
With two new spirits ready for release by summer and more collaborations in development for the future, Arizona Distilling Company will continue to surprise and delight its spirited fans stateside and beyond.
Sampling the Wares
Visitors are encouraged to take a tour from Wednesday through Saturday by appointment from 1 to 7pm at the Tempe location at 508 W. 1st Street. Arizona Distilling Company products are available at a number of retailers around the Valley including AJ's, BevMo, Total Wine, Fry's, select Costco locations, Tops Liquor and at several local restaurants. See azdistilling.com for more information.