Local Company Handcrafting Bourbon, Gin
The story of Arizona Distilling Co. could very easily be all about three high school buddies, a lifelong dream of making hooch and a rigged-together still in someone’s garage and other such romantic teenage boy notions.
But the story is really so much more interesting than that.
Yes, the company is three high school friends–and a post high school partner–knee deep in booze in a warehouse just west of downtown Tempe creating a handcrafted liquor company. On the day I visited, the group was in the midst of building a new rack—power tools in hand—for their 10-gallon white American oak barrels full of aging bourbon.
While that may seem like simply a passing fact, it’s these 10 gallon barrels, as opposed to the standard 55-gallon size, that mark the beginning of the differences between the craft-distilling process of Arizona Distilling Co. versus large-scale distilleries. Lacking the luxury of time, vast warehouse space and endless financial resources, craft distillers have the willingness to ignore the established rules of commercial distilling when it suits them, and to invent their own. These small barrels allow for an accelerated aging period, as does the particular climatic conditions these Arizona natives face. Thinking of the different regions of the world known for their whiskey – Ireland, Scotland, Kentucky – none of them are known for their hot, dry and very evaporative climate; the dry summer months require the distiller to hose the barrels down in the unrefrigerated warehouse to prevent damage and excessive loss through evaporation, also known as the “angel’s share.”
If the angels are anything like me, they are more than pleased with what they’ve been tasting from this crew. My first experience with this distillery’s efforts was the yet-to-be-released desert durum whiskey, the product of high-quality, Arizona-grown durum wheat procured from a Casa Grande co-op. In another life, this wheat would most likely have ended up in Italy, where much of Arizona’s wheat is sent to be rolled or extruded into delicate pasta. To taste this wheat in its 120-proof straight-from-the-barrel form is an experience no pasta dish can provide: warm, with a soft honey sweetness, a warm tickle going down, and despite it’s youth (mere months, not the typical years) and high alcohol content, nothing but smooth. This smoothness is the tying element to all of the distillery’s products, from their first offering of Copper City Bourbon, with it’s fitting copper-colored throwback typography, to the more modern and recently released Desert Dry Gin, it’s bottle marked by a large copper star. The former hits with the scent of buttery caramel corn, and drinks with a cinnamon warmth. The gin, generously flavored with botanicals, yet light on juniper, refreshes with lavender and citrus. It may just become my drink of summer. This year may bring an agave spirit from this brand, one that will undoubtedly capture the same smoothness.
The men of Arizona Distilling Co. speak passionately about every part of their subject, turning sour only when it comes to Arizona’s convoluted alcohol distribution system. But their very successful start proves that this system and presence at popular watering holes, both casual and upscale, has done little to stop them. Additionally it’s now possible to taste the product on its own turf. The group has opened their facilities to the public. Arizona Distilling Co. is located at 508 W. 1st St. in Tempe, and is open from 1 to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.
Copper City Bourbon Cocktails
Bourbon, as commonly thought, is not produced only in Kentucky, but can be distilled anywhere, as the United States lacks the Designation of Origin protection beverages such as champagne and tequila enjoy. It is quite simply a whiskey distilled from a minimum of 51 percent corn mash; Arizona Distilling Co. Copper City Bourbon is made up of 75 percent corn, 20 percent rye, and 5 percent barley.
2 ounces bourbon
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 egg white
Splash of Absinthe or Sambuca
Make the simple syrup by gently simmering equal parts sugar and water, until the liquid thickens. The egg white in this cocktail is optional, but without it, would lack the froth and volume it’s addition provides. If safety is a concern, use one tablespoon of pasteurized egg whites per cocktail.
Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Securely cover, and shake vigorously. The better the shake, the more froth that egg white will produce. Strain over ice into a thick walled glass tumbler.
A simple bourbon or rye cocktail, the Old Fashioned is frequently over-treated, which takes away the pure flavor of a well balanced spirit. In this cocktail, simplicity is the best treatment.
1 sugar cube
Amarena or brandied cherry
Thinly sliced orange wedge
2 ounces bourbon
Place the sugar cube in glass tumbler (also known as an Old Fashioned glass), soak with Angostura bitters. Add the orange slice and amarena cherry. Muddle gently. Top with large ice cubes, pour the bourbon over them, and stir to blend. The cocktail may be lightened with a slight splash of soda water or ginger ale.